Jari Kaukua-Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy_ Avicenna and Beyond (2015).pdf

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This important book investigates the emergence and development of a distinct concept of self-awareness in post-classical, pre-modern Islamic philosophy. Jari Kaukua presents the first extended analysis of Avicenna’s arguments on self-awareness – including the flying man, the argument from the unity of experience, the argument against reflection models of self-awareness and the argument from personal identity – claiming that all these arguments hinge on a clearly definable concept of self-awareness as pure first-personality. He substantiates his interpretation with an analysis of Suhrawardī’s use of Avicenna’s concept and Mullā S·adrā’s revision of the underlying concept of selfhood. The study explores evidence for a sustained, pre-modern and non-Western discussion of selfhood and self-awareness, challenging the idea that these concepts are distinctly modern, European concerns. The book will be of interest to a range of readers in history of philosophy, history of ideas, Islamic studies and philosophy of mind. jari kaukua is Academy of Finland Research Fellow in the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä. He is the author of several articles in journals including Vivarium and History and Theory. This is his first book.



University Printing House, Cambridge cb2 8bs, United Kingdom Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. www.cambridge.org Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9781107088795 © Jari Kaukua 2015 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2015 Printed in the United Kingdom by Clays, St Ives plc A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data Kaukua, Jari. Self-awareness in Islamic philosophy : Avicenna and beyond / Jari Kaukua. pages cm isbn 978-1-107-08879-5 (hardback) 1. Self (Philosophy) 2. Self-consciousness (Awareness) 3. Islamic philosophy. I. Title. b745.s35k38 2014 126.0880 297–dc23 2014023812 isbn 978-1-107-08879-5 Hardback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of urls for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

For Ukko, Touko and Rauha


page ix



Introduction 1

Preliminary observations: self-cognition and Avicennian psychology 1.1 1.2

Self-cognition in the ancient heritage Avicennian psychology in outline

2 Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness: the experiential basis of the flying man 2.1 2.2

The purpose and basis of the flying man The validity and plausibility of the flying man

3 Self-awareness as existence: Avicenna on the individuality of an incorporeal substance 3.1 3.2

The problem of incorporeal individuality Self-awareness as incorporeal existence

4 In the first person: Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness reconstructed 4.1 4.2 4.3

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence Self-awareness, reflection and intellection

5 Self-awareness without substance: from Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī to Suhrawardī 5.1 5.2

Avicennian material in Suhrawardī Substanceless self-awareness

6 Self-awareness, presence, appearance: the ishrāqī context 6.1

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


12 12 22 30 31 37 43 43 51 62 64 80 89 104 106 114 124 125



6.2 Self-awareness and being as appearance 6.3 Degrees of self-awareness

7 Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness 7.1 7.2

Four Avicennian arguments The complicated evidence of self-awareness

8 The self reconsidered: S·adrian revisions to the Avicennian concept 8.1 8.2

The self and cognitive unity Identity in substantial change

Conclusion: Who is the I? Appendix: Arabic terminology related to self-awareness Bibliography Index

142 154 161 164 181 192 192 208 228 233 238 254


This book is the distillation of the research conducted during my postdoctoral period, but some of its central insights were already formed during my doctoral studies. I therefore owe an immense debt of gratitude to my supervisors, the late Juha Sihvola, Mikko Yrjönsuuri and Taneli Kukkonen. The extremely conscientious and insightful comments of Jon McGinnis and Simo Knuuttila provided crucial corroboration and realignment at a formative stage. Finally, Peter Adamson not only added his characteristically penetrating points but also was pivotal for my full engagement with postAvicennian philosophy by inviting me to share my hesitant first reflections on Suhrawardī at a conference held in London in February 2008. Financially, my research has been enabled by generous support from the Academy of Finland (through research fellowships under the titles ‘Selfhood in Medieval Islamic Philosophy’ and ‘Knowledge in Post-Avicennian Islamic Philosophy,’ and through the two Centers of Excellence led by Simo Knuuttila, ‘History of Mind’ and ‘Philosophical Psychology, Morality and Politics’), the European Research Council (through Taneli Kukkonen’s research project on ‘Subjectivity and Selfhood in the Arabic and Latin Traditions’) and the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (through the project ‘Understanding Agency’ led by Lilli Alanen and Pauliina Remes). I have had the pleasure of conducting the research at the inspiring environments of the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä, my academic home and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Uppsala. During the final revision, I enjoyed the hospitality of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. My gratitude goes to the staff and the directors of these organizations, but especially to all the dear colleagues who have shared their critical insights at the various stages of formation of my ideas, in particular to Vili Lähteenmäki, Juhana Toivanen, Mikko Yrjönsuuri, Taneli Kukkonen, Miira Tuominen, Timothy Riggs and Tomas Ekenberg. I have also benefited enormously from the comments of colleagues who listened to my talks at various seminars and conferences. ix



Particularly cherished have been the critical yet encouraging remarks I received during my visit to Iran from ‘Alī ‘Abidi Shahrūdi, Sa‘īd Javadi Amoli and ‘Abd al-Rasūl ‘Ubūdīyat, and I would like to extend my gratitude to Yasser Pouresmail and Mohammad Javad Esmaeili for organizing these talks. Finally, I am heavily indebted to my editor Hilary Gaskin as well as the two anonymous referees for Cambridge University Press, whose combined acumen helped me to improve the book quite considerably. The librarians at the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Uppsala have been invaluably efficient in tracing down my frequently obscure requests. This book would not have been possible without their help. By the same token, I would like to recognize Sajjad Rizvi’s and Vasileios Syros’ collegial assistance with some particularly unobtainable texts. Deborah Black, Therese Scarpelli Cory, Jules Janssens and Luis Xavier López-Farjeat have kindly shared their own work, even in pre-publication form, for which I am most grateful. Jessica Slattery and Tim Riggs did a great job in polishing my English; I hold exclusive rights to the inelegancies that remain. Finally, I’m grateful for Ville Suomalainen’s skilled and reliable preparation of the index. Most of all, I am grateful for the unfailing love and support of my wife Lotta, who alone has had to bear with the more insecure stages of the book’s labour. I dedicate the finished work to our children.


The Western world revolves around the self. A sure sign of this is the proliferation of various neologisms in, for instance, folk psychological, alternative therapeutic or economic parlance. We are all familiar with various self-help programmes, self-counselling sessions, prospects of selfdevelopment, self-transcendence or self-realization, the conscientious consumer’s need of occasional self-compassion, and the rational economic man’s guiding principle of self-interest. This general cultural trend has its parallels in philosophy and various other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. For the past decades, self-consciousness or self-awareness has been a constant concern of philosophers of mind, with the fact of firstpersonal, self-aware qualitative experience presenting arguably the most obstinate obstacle for the naturalist explanation of all and everything. Questions of perceived and constructed identity, or identities, have generated a thriving academic industry, with no recession in the foreseeable future. Indeed, modernity and post-modernity are often defined precisely by means of the novel notions of selfhood or individual identity (or the dissolution thereof) to which these epochs are alleged witnesses. As a result of the sustained interest in selfhood, the term ‘self’, as well as the related psychological terms such as ‘self-awareness’ or ‘selfconsciousness’, is a nodal point of both complementary and conflicting intuitions, interests and convictions. It is therefore not a surprise that the term is extremely ambiguous, and that there are in fact a number of more or less distinct concepts of self; a recent enumeration of variants in the philosophical scene alone finds no less than thirty-two different epithets used to characterize the self.1 These concepts range from extremely narrow notions of subjectivity as a structural feature of all experience to considerably more complex concepts of the self as a narrative or socially constructed entity; some are motivated by epistemological interests while others emerge 1

Strawson 2009, 18.




from research in genetic psychology, sociology or anthropology. On the other hand, extended cases have been made for the thesis that a coherent naturalistic ontology can do without anything like the self, which at best is an arguably useful psychological or cultural fiction, but more often a hopelessly entangled web of linguistic and conceptual confusions.2 Such heated activity about the self places the historian of ideas, particularly one working with a period and cultural context far removed from our own, face to face with a set of thorny questions. These arise first of all from the ambiguity of the term ‘self’ and the corresponding vagueness of the concept of self. Which of the many alternative selves are we investigating? What type of self-awareness are we scanning the historical material for? Are we describing the development of a psychological entity, writing the history of an epistemic question or an ethical dilemma, or telling the story of a conceptual fiction? Other questions seem even more serious: is it not rather suspect to set out straightforwardly to study the history of a topic so loaded with contemporary interest? Even if we were able to dispel the ambiguity about the self, why should we suppose that thinkers in a period and cultural context distant from ours were interested in it in the first place? Indeed, if interest in the self is constitutive to modernity, should we rather not assume that any sustained discussion about it is unlikely to have taken place before that particular epoch? Worries of this sort are by no means exclusive to conscientious historians. Spurred by the ghosts of colonial history, the sociological and anthropological theses of the unimaginable variety of human intellectual and social life have penetrated our cultural consciousness and made us particularly sensitive to the diverse values, beliefs, convictions and experiences that people in different cultural contexts can hold and recognize. Indeed, this conviction of the variability of human being is pivotal to the post-modern idea that human selves or identities are constructed out of elements, many of which are not determined by our species but are rather open to all sorts of active interference by ourselves or by various forces in the cultural and social contexts of our lives. As tantalizing as it may initially seem to study an ancient Greek thinker’s or a seventeenth-century Iranian philosopher’s respective theories of the self, the first question to ask is why we can legitimately expect him even to recognize the entity. In the following, my intention is not to start from any particular contemporary concept of the self or self-awareness. For this reason, it would be topsy-turvy to start off by describing the focus of our investigation 2

Cf. Kenny 1988 and 1999; Dennett 1991; Olson 1998; Metzinger 2003 and 2011.



in specific terms. Rather, I will begin by reconstructing a particular way of describing and conceiving of the self and self-awareness that emerges explicitly for the first time in Islamic philosophy in the psychological writings of Avicenna (d. 1037). Having laid this basis, I will proceed to study the development of this particular description and concept, as well as that of the arguments applied in its articulation, in the thought of Avicenna’s most illustrious successors, down to the revisionist philosophical system of Mullā S·adrā (d. 1635/6) in the seventeenth century CE. The point is to start from the way in which our authors describe, organize and classify their experience, asking why they chose to pay attention to this particular aspect of human experience, and what role the concept and the phenomenon of self-awareness played in their thought. To anticipate the story this approach will yield, it is illuminating to make a heuristic distinction between the phenomenology and the metaphysics of the self and self-awareness. To borrow Galen Strawson’s succinct demarcation, ‘Metaphysics . . . is the general study of how things are or can be or must be. It’s a matter for scientists and mathematicians as well as philosophers, and I take it to include physics as an evolving part. Phenomenology is the study of a particular part of how things are or can be or must be. It’s the general study of the character of experience in all its sensory and cognitive richness.’3 Thus, the metaphysics of the self (or selfawareness) concerns the question of what sort of entity (or event, state or capacity) it is in reality, whether such things as selves really exist in the first place, and if so, whether they are anything like they initially seem to be. In contemporary terms, the paradigmatic question to ask is whether our naturalistic framework of explanation needs such entities as selves at all, or whether we can explain them away by reductive recourse to something more foundational. But even if we adopt a reductionist metaphysical stance towards the self, we need not deny its persistence on the level of phenomenology. If it is an undeniable fact that people are aware of themselves in some sense, and if this is all we mean by their having selves, then the phenomenological level is a matter of discussion of how to describe the phenomenon. We can make positive assertions about the phenomenon without committing either to realism about a corresponding thing or to the denial thereof; in Strawson’s words, there can be selfexperiences on the phenomenological level (perhaps even consensus about


Strawson 2009, 1.



distinctions between their types) even if nothing like selves existed according to our metaphysics.4 Thus, one way of characterizing the plot of the present story is to say that it is an unfolding of different metaphysical interpretations on a shared phenomenological basis. The repetition of familiar Avicennian arguments related to self-awareness, often word for word, sediments the phenomenon of self-awareness into a received foundation of psychology. From the twelfth century CE onwards, most philosophical authors will begin their discussion of the human soul, sometimes even their entire psychology, with the famous thought experiment of the flying man, or apply in crucial stages the evidence of the subjective unity of experience or the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness. As I will argue in detail, this is because they unanimously subscribe to Avicenna’s description of selfawareness and his way of singling out this particular aspect of human experience. The consensus dissolves, however, as soon as the discussion shifts to the metaphysical explanation of the phenomenon and the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn on its basis. As we will see, Avicenna himself considered self-awareness to be a potent pointer towards, if not a proof of, the truth of his substance dualist view of human being, but this move was already being questioned by the first generation of his students. This sceptical strand was continued and established as a firm part of the subsequent theological tradition by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209) towards the end of the twelfth century CE. Yet it was not the whole story, for Rāzī’s contemporary Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191) not only adopted Avicenna’s description of self-awareness, but also placed it at the very foundation of his new illuminationist concepts of knowledge and being. Thus, from a potent piece of evidence in human psychology, the phenomenon of self-awareness became the paradigmatic type of knowledge, and the cornerstone of an entire metaphysics. Not only was the phenomenon of self-awareness open for radically new argumentative applications – there was also room for debate concerning the correct metaphysical account of the entity behind self-awareness, the human self. This becomes eminently clear in our investigation of the thought of Mullā S·adrā, who embeds the received description of selfawareness in a radically revised metaphysical framework. A determined subscriber to his predecessors’ means of describing and delimiting the 4

Strawson 2009, 2. Following Strawson, in the present study the terms ‘phenomenology’ and ‘phenomenon’ are not used to refer to the thriving tradition of philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl.



phenomenon, he nevertheless criticized their conception of the self as being inadequately static. Instead of a stable substance that endures unchanged through the constant flux of its attributes and relations to the world, S·adrā preferred to conceive of the self as a substance in motion that is thoroughly determined by the variation of its attributes, and unified only in the sense of being a single continuous stream of existence that is aware of itself. In an approach of this kind, the proof of the pudding can only be in the eating. I am not studying human selfhood and self-awareness as a ‘perennial’ topic of philosophy, but aim instead to describe one historical, and radically contingent, trajectory that to me seems best understood by means of our terminology of self and self-awareness.5 In the end, the texts under study must not only provide the ingredients for our reconstruction of the Islamic philosophers’ description of self-awareness, they must also yield sufficient evidence that philosophers writing in Arabic from the eleventh century CE onwards had both the motivation and the conceptual means to pay systematic descriptive attention to their experience. Although Avicenna’s, Suhrawardī’s and Mullā S·adrā’s concepts of self and self-awareness are not without parallels among contemporary classifications of different types of selfhood and self-awareness, the crucial claim remains that we can and must reconstruct those concepts, and the underlying preoccupations, interests and convictions, without taking our primary cue from corresponding modern concepts. Since the present book is a story of the emergence and development of one particular concept of self and self-awareness, it is by necessity relatively narrow in its focus. Consequently, it does not strive to give an exhaustive overview of the different possible concepts of self and self-awareness that one might be able to locate in Islamic intellectual history between the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries CE. If such a general investigation were conducted rigorously, that is, according to the sort of bottom-up approach we have just sketched, it would exceed the limits feasible for a single-volume study, and would most certainly be beyond the capacities of the present author. A more liberal charting of the landscape, on the other hand, could scarcely avoid taking its cue from some contemporary ways of conceptualizing the self and self-awareness, which would seriously compromise its value for the systematically and historically demanding reader. 5

Thus, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the concern over anachronistic rational reconstruction as seminally formulated in Skinner 1969, although I believe that it must be qualified by a recognition of the limits of all historical reconstruction. For an attempt at articulating those limits, with a particular view to the questions of self and self-awareness, see Kaukua and Lähteenmäki 2010.



This is by no means the first historical study of the self and self-awareness in pre-modern philosophy. Charles Taylor’s seminal Sources of the Self already set off with a sketch of the opening of the interior space of experience in ancient philosophy, even if the book’s main emphasis was on the emergence of the specifically modern notion of selfhood.6 More recently, Richard Sorabji published a large volume with the succinct title Self, which deals emphatically and at considerable length with ancient and medieval views on a range of metaphysical, psychological and ethical questions related to selfhood and self-awareness.7 Roughly simultaneous to Sorabji’s book, Raymond Martin and John Barresi came out with an intellectual history of personal identity titled The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self.8 Finally, Alain de Libera’s ongoing Archéologie du sujet is an engaging story of how the modern notion of subjectivity emerges from the development of decidedly medieval philosophical concerns.9 These are just some of the most prominent recent examples, which can be supplemented by several excellent studies focused on a single thinker or a more distant period.10 Yet in spite of the considerable joint merits of these books in covering a vast array of thinkers, none of them ventures very far into the territory of Arabic or Islamic philosophy, with the stand-alone exception of Avicenna, whose thought experiment of the flying man is often quoted as a perspicacious if puzzling attempt at describing and delineating the phenomenon of selfawareness. Similarly, the handful of articles or book chapters that have been written on self-awareness in Islamic philosophy are mostly focused on Avicenna.11 That historians of the self have neglected the post-Avicennian development in Islamic philosophy is not particularly surprising. Until quite recently, Islamic philosophy was regarded as a fringe phenomenon in the broad scope of the history of philosophy, worthy of inclusion only to the extent that it played a role in the transmission and transformation of the Greek heritage before its final appropriation by the Latin philosophers and theologians from the thirteenth century onwards. While the absence of verifiable contacts between the principal proponents of Islamic and Christian philosophy after Averroes’ death in 1198 CE may have legitimated the delegation of the study of the subsequent Islamic tradition to the 6 9 10 11

7 8 Taylor 1989. Sorabji 2006. Martin and Barresi 2006. De Libera 2007 and 2008, with two more volumes announced. Cf., for example, Gill 1996 and 2006 (on Greek literature and Hellenistic philosophy, respectively); Cary 2003 (on Augustine); Remes 2007 (on Plotinus); Cory 2013 (on Aquinas). Cf. Sebti 2000, 100–117; Black 2008 and 2012; and Kaukua 2007. Marcotte 2004 and Kaukua 2011 deal with Suhrawardī’s relation to Avicenna.



orientalists, this was often coupled with the more derogatory thesis that there simply was no philosophical activity worthy of the name in the Arabic language after Averroes’ allegedly unsuccessful attempt to defend philosophy against Abū H · āmid al-Ghazālī’s (d. 1111 CE) fatal blow dealt in his critical Tahāfut al-falāsifa. It has since been conclusively shown that Ghazālī did not put an end to the development of philosophical thought in the Islamic world, either single-handedly or as the spearhead of a wider opposition from orthodox theologians. In fact, the contrary consensus is beginning to emerge according to which he may not even have intended anything of the sort. Instead, Ghazālī has been argued to have knowingly incorporated a great amount of philosophical material, not to mention the philosophical method of rigorous argumentation, into his own thought, and to have been followed in this by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, another highly venerated Sunnī theologian.12 Thus, although self-proclaimed philosophers may have grown rare in the subsequent centuries of Islamic thought, philosophical activity prospered in Sunnī theological writing and teaching, quite likely down to our era.13 On the other hand, Iran has fostered a thriving philosophical tradition through to the present day. In the light of our increasing knowledge of the development of this field of intellectual activity, it seems a safe estimate to say that post-Avicennian Islamic philosophers were not afraid of making departures comparable in extent to their early modern European peers.14 This is especially evident in the thought of Suhrawardī and Mullā S·adrā whose revisions of received views will be our major concern in the following. Nevertheless, the strictly philosophical value of this tradition is sometimes still obscured by the fact that some of its most prominent Western scholars have tended to emphasize other, more mystical aspects of the philosophers’ thought. This is especially true of the pioneering work of Henry Corbin who played a major role in their introduction to the Western public. Corbin was an eccentric thinker who developed his own method of phenomenological interpretation, which hinged upon the explicit permission, or indeed requirement, to give up most of the rigour of the historical method; instead, one was to strive to imaginatively reinvigorate the mystical insights of one’s objects of study. Instead of an attempt at philosophical understanding, this often involved extravagant emphasis on the symbols and myths, which 12 13 14

See Wisnovsky 2004a; Shihadeh 2005 and 2006; Griffel 2009. See Wisnovsky 2004b; El-Rouayheb 2010. For a concise account of the central debates in Iranian philosophy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, see Pourjavady 2011, 1–105.



some of the authors frequently employ, to draw daunting connections not only between different eras of Iranian thought but also between the Islamic philosophers and historically unconnected European mystics such as Jakob Böhme or Emmanuel Swedenborg.15 This approach to reconstructing the history of Iranian philosophy has hardly increased the credibility of the tradition in the eyes of less extravagant readers, and the situation has not been helped by the fact that a number of influential scholars have maintained Corbin’s emphasis on mysticism.16 Although many of these scholars, and Corbin in particular, should be lauded for their historical and philological contributions, their work has been a mixed blessing for the wider recognition of the philosophical merits of post-Avicennian philosophy. The recent past notwithstanding, few specialists today will debate the inclusion of post-Avicennian philosophical authors in the class of subjects meriting serious philosophical study. But despite several excellent studies since the 1980s,17 our understanding of later Islamic philosophy is not yet on the level that we have come to expect in the case of canonical figures such as al-Fārābī, Avicenna or Averroes. In my view, it is crucial for reaching this goal that we interpret the ‘post-classical’ authors in close and rigorous connection to the classical Avicennian framework, in the understanding of which we can rely on several decades of first-rate philosophical scholarship on a wide range of topics. As this study of self-awareness suggests, even the most original moves of thinkers like Suhrawardī or Mullā S·adrā can be fully appreciated only against this background; Avicenna’s insights are neither a model to be slavishly followed nor an antiquated edifice to be simply discarded in favour of supposedly higher mystical ways to reach the Truth, but rather potent material for revision and reapplication. This is most obvious in Suhrawardī’s employment of Avicenna’s psychological arguments for the irreducibility of self-awareness as the basis for his new metaphysics of light and appearance in the H · ikma al-ishrāq. It is true that the debts are not always acknowledged, and it is not uncommon that we have to show the Avicennian credentials of an author against his express denouncement – again, Suhrawardī’s wholesale rejection of Peripatetic metaphysics and theory of science, preliminary only to the introduction of another piece of Avicennian evidence, is a case in point – but in this regard the post-Avicennian philosophers are by no means unique. 15 16 17

For a prime example of Corbin’s method in practice, see Corbin 1971, vol. ii. Cf., for instance, the work of Corbin’s close associate Seyyed Hossein Nasr (such as his 1978 and 1996); and studies like Morris 1981 or Amin Razavi 1997. Cf. Ziai 1990; Jambet 2002 and 2008; Bonmariage 2007; Rizvi 2009; Kalin 2010; Rustom 2012.



Thus, by means of the particular case of self-awareness I hope to substantiate the claim that we should read authors like Suhrawardī and Mullā S·adrā as reacting first and foremost to philosophical debates and texts, and to interpret them with the sort of expectations of conceptual rigorousness and insight that guide us in the formative case of Avicenna. Conversely, the study will also propose that the investigation of the reception of some of Avicenna’s original ideas may be a considerable asset in our attempts to understand those ideas in their inceptor by providing corroboration for our reconstructions of them. In the case of self-awareness, the novelty of Avicenna’s concept gives rise to a number of complications in the framework of Peripatetic psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics, which in turn has made its reconstruction a matter of considerable difficulty and debate. While similarity with a particular strand of reception is of course no evidence for the correctness of any single interpretation of the view that is being received, the twelfth-century discussion of self-awareness can still help us by showing which interpretation the thinkers temporally and culturally close to Avicenna considered as the most plausible. This is evinced by their devising additional arguments along Avicennian lines, such as the systematic distinction between the subject and the object of experience in terms of ‘I’ and ‘it’, respectively, or their introduction of highly clarificatory new terms to describe self-awareness, such as Suhrawardī’s ‘I-ness’ (anā’īya). The first chapter of the book discusses the most prominent pre-Avicennian philosophical concepts of the self and the various types of self-cognition, and introduces briefly some of the basic doctrines of the Avicennian psychology that provide the framework for much of the ensuing discussion. Chapter 2 will introduce the phenomenological basis of Avicenna’s new concept of self-awareness. I will start with one of his most famous arguments, the thought experiment featuring the flying or floating man. By reading the flying man in its immediate context and in close connection with the argumentative goals it is intended to reach, I attempt to show that Avicenna builds his concept of self-awareness upon something he expects us all to be familiar with from our everyday experience. This is an important point to make not only because the nature of the thought experiment has been a matter of scholarly debate, but first and foremost because its familiar phenomenological basis is crucial to my later reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. Chapter 3 adopts a parallel line of approach by considering Avicenna’s possible motives in introducing the new concept of self-awareness. This



question of theoretical rationale becomes pressing because of the striking claim that Avicenna makes in his mature correspondence, namely the claim that self-awareness amounts to the existence of the immaterial human substance. The interpretation I suggest is that Avicenna may have perceived self-awareness as instrumental to presenting a coherent psychological substance dualism in the Peripatetic framework that founds individuality on a strong connection to matter. In other words, he may have seen in selfawareness a solution to the question of how a human being can be both an immaterial substance and an individual instantiation of the human species. After these preparatory chapters, I finally present my reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness in Chapter 4. By considering a number of Avicennian arguments related to self-awareness, I attempt to show that the new concept is intended to capture a very narrow sense of firstpersonality inherent in all human existence. I argue that this reconstruction of the concept is particularly charitable to Avicenna, because it is capable of fulfilling the stringent requirements placed upon the concept by all the argumentative contexts in which the phenomenon is applied. This is further supported by a consideration of the scattered remarks Avicenna makes on reflective self-awareness. Chapter 5 moves on to discuss the treatment of this aspect of the Avicennian heritage in the thought of his twelfth-century critics. The chapter shows how the critical remarks of Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d. 1164/5 CE) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī lead eventually to Suhrawardī’s separation of the phenomenon and the concept of self-awareness from Avicenna’s metaphysical account of it as the existence of the human substance. Henceforth, self-awareness can be conceived in purely phenomenological terms, that is, without explaining it in more foundational metaphysical terms. As will be shown in Chapter 6, the separation of Avicenna’s phenomenology of the self from his metaphysics is decisive for Suhrawardī’s own attempt at developing a self-styled illuminationist (ishrāqī) alternative to Avicenna’s Peripatetic system. Through a close reading of the passages in which he introduces the pivotal concepts of knowledge as presence (hudūr) ˙ is and being as light (nūr) or appearance (z· uhūr), I show that self-awareness pivotal to the definition of both new terms. Thus, Suhrawardī is witness to a seismic shift in the application of the concept of self-awareness without any change in the description of the underlying phenomenon. Regardless of its great explanatory power, Avicenna seems to have restricted the importance of self-awareness to psychological concerns, but in Suhrawardī it becomes a cornerstone of both epistemology and metaphysics.



Chapter 7 proceeds to consider how self-awareness figures in the thought of Mullā S·adrā, the great seventeenth-century synthesizer of the various strands of earlier Islamic thought. A thorough consideration of S·adrā’s magnum opus al-H · ikma al-muta‘āliya fī al-asfār al-arba‘a al-‘aqlīya shows that he incorporates most of the traditional arguments revolving on selfawareness as well as a great deal of the critical attention subjected to them in the intervening centuries of Islamic thought. This is particularly interesting because two of the philosophical doctrines that set S·adrā apart from most of his predecessors seem to be severely at odds with the Avicennian concept of self-awareness. Chapter 8 will therefore turn to consider in detail how S·adrā’s adherence to the ancient theory of cognitive unity, and to his original theory of thoroughgoing change involving the substantial core of each and every created entity, affects his understanding of the self and selfawareness. It will be seen that notwithstanding S·adrā’s initial subscription to the traditional material, his concept of the self is significantly different from that of his predecessors. Instead of a narrow and static first-personality, the S·adrian self is thoroughly intertwined with other determinations of experience and thereby subject to genuine change and development. To sum up, the story that we are about to tell hinges on a single philosophically loaded phenomenon, a feature of human experience that all central actors single out and define by largely the same empirical and argumentative means. Yet it is a genuine story because it incorporates significant shifts in the conclusions made on that shared basis. Moreover, as we will see, even the phenomenological basis of the concept of selfawareness is opened for revision. This space for conceptual variations notwithstanding, it is important to underline that the storyline itself emerges from the historical material. It is clear that each subsequent philosopher latches on to a discussion, the means and motives of which he inherits from his predecessors. I do not doubt that other eminently interesting and historically sound stories about the self and self-awareness in the Islamic cultural milieu remain to be told, but I would like to claim that the narrow focus of the present study allows us to reap the benefit of a plot that marries philosophical suspense to historical truth.

chapter 1

Preliminary observations: self-cognition and Avicennian psychology


Self-cognition in the ancient heritage

One of the historical claims of the present study is that Avicenna’s work marks the point of entry of a new concept of self-awareness into the Arabic philosophical scene. This does not mean that there was no prior Arabic philosophical discussion about the self and the various types of selfcognition, nor do I wish to claim that the novel concept was developed on a clean theoretical slate. Like all philosophers, Avicenna builds on the remarks, arguments and doctrinal convictions of his predecessors, but it is an altogether different question whether these were sufficient to determine his thinking, or whether Avicenna gave the tradition a decided twist of his own. In order to substantiate the latter alternative, developed in a more positive vein in the following chapters, let us briefly review some of those aspects of the ancient heritage that pertain to questions about the self and self-awareness and that were demonstrably available in pre-Avicennian Arabic philosophy. An obvious point of relevance is Aristotle’s discussion of our perceiving that we perceive in De anima III.2. Although self-awareness is not the main focus of this passage, which is naturally interpreted as addressing the more general problem of phenomenal consciousness,1 it can be argued to imply some sort of self-awareness as well, since Aristotle explicitly states it to be one and the same subject of perception that both perceives something and perceives itself to perceive that something.2 Aristotle’s reasons for introducing the question of the perception of perception are a matter of debate; one plausible view is that he does it out of a need to distinguish the physical 1


For an influential recent version of this interpretation, see Caston 2002 (and cf. Sisko 2004; Caston 2004; Johansen 2005; Polansky 2007, 380–402; and Perälä 2010, 43–101). Earlier studies of the topic are Kahn 1966; Kosman 1975; Hardie 1976; Hamlyn 1978; Modrak 1981, 1987; and Osborne 1983. Cf. NE IX.9, 1170a29–b1, which suggests that Aristotle may have entertained an explicit concept of such a primitive type of self-awareness.


Self-cognition in the ancient heritage


changes that result in perception from those that do not.3 This is a problem because, as Aristotle recognizes in De anima II.12, the very same causes can produce both perceivable qualities and actual perceptions in another thing – consider, for example, a rose that makes the surrounding air odorous but incites a pleasurable sensation of smelling in a human being.4 The basis of the distinction is left strangely underdeveloped in De anima,5 but Aristotle does state it in the more general context of Physics VII.2, where we can find the general claim, here translated from Ish.āq ibn H · unayn’s (d. 910/11 CE) Arabic, that ‘that change in other than the senses [that is, the change of what is not “animate” (al-mutanaffisa)] is not aware of the change’ (takūna al-istihālata tilka bi ghayri al-h.awāssi lam tash‘ur bi al-istih.āla).6 Since percipient animals are not mere bodies, like rocks whose behaviour can be exhaustively described in general physical terms, the natural philosopher must introduce further differentiating properties as principles for their study in the specific subdiscipline of cognitive psychology. The percipient subjects’ awareness of the processes of perception can be understood as precisely such a differentiating property. Thus, in this reconstruction Aristotle’s introduction of the question of how awareness of perception comes about is an immediate result of his general concept of perception. In the Greek text, Aristotle speaks of us ‘sensing that we are seeing or hearing’ (aisthanometha hoti horōmen kai akouomen) and therefore in some sense perceiving ourselves in the act of seeing or hearing, and mentions a sense faculty or act which is capable of sensing itself (autē hautēs).7 He argues that awareness of oneself as perceiving is a kind of perception, and consequently a corresponding faculty of perception must be ascribed to explain it. Two options then readily suggest themselves: either there is a second-order faculty in addition to each sense which perceives the first sense perceiving, or the first-order sense perceives both an external object and its own perception of the external object. Since the first option will lead to an 3 4 5

6 7

So Caston 2002, 755–759; for the conflicting view that Aristotle simply takes the phenomenon for granted, see Perälä 2010, 51. Ar. De an. II.12, 424b3–17. Aristotle may also have been thinking about the implicit distinction between mere alteration (inanimate things) and the actualization of a potency (animate things) in De an. II.5, or the distinction between receiving a quality with matter (inanimate things) and without matter (animate things) in II.12. Arist.ūt.ālīs, al-T.abī‘a VII.2, 244b12–245a2, 751. On Ish.āq’s translation, see Peters 1968, 30–34. Ar. De an. III.2, 425b12–17. Whether he meant an act or a faculty is one of the scholarly bones of contention; see Caston 2002 and Johansen 2005 for prominent representatives of the activity and capacity readings, respectively. My use of ‘faculty’ in the following should not be taken as a stand in this debate, although it does seem the more natural reading from the point of view of Arabic philosophical psychology, especially that of Avicenna.


Preliminary observations

infinite regress unless a self-perceiving faculty is posited at some point, Aristotle argues that we should posit such a faculty at the first stage. As a conclusion, every faculty of perception is said to perceive its own act. Unfortunately, the beginning of De anima III.2 is not included among the surviving fragments of Ish.āq’s translation, Avicenna’s preferred text. An inferior anonymous translation, to which he also had access, renders the relevant section as follows: But since we apprehend when we see and hear (kunnā mudrikīna lammā ra’aynā wa sama‘nā), vision’s apprehension when it sees must necessarily be either through itself (bi nafsihi) or through something else. But it would apprehend both itself (yakūna mudrikan nafsahu) and the colour of the subject. Because of that either two things apprehend a single thing or vision apprehends itself (nafsahu). If vision had a distinct sense, then that would descend infinitely in division or turns to apprehend itself (raja‘a fa kāna mudrikan nafsahu); as a consequence, this is to be said of the first sense.8

Where the Greek original speaks of sensing that we are seeing or hearing, the anonymous translator renders the point by means of an implicit and largely ambiguous distinction between seeing or hearing as such, and apprehending when (lammā) we see or hear. Not only is it said that we apprehend when we see and hear things, even the faculty of vision does.9 However, this ambiguity does not obscure the text’s relevance for the question of self-awareness, which becomes pronounced in the subsequent reflexive use of nafs in connection with mudrik – there really is something apprehending itself here. Since we lack access to Ish.āq’s allegedly superior translation, it is difficult to determine what exactly readers of the Arabic Aristotle drew from De anima III.2. I would like to argue, however, that although perception of perception continued to be recognized as a psychological topic, its ingredients seem not to have made their way into explicit discussions on selfawareness proper. Avicenna, for instance, alludes to the problem as a question that is pertinent to his theory of the internal sense faculties, with not so much as a hint that he would have perceived it to have any considerable repercussions to his concept of self-awareness.10 Although the thinkers studied in the present volume uniformly agree that all cognitive 8

9 10

Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.2, 425b12–17, 64. That this version is not Ish.āq’s was established in Frank 1958–9 (for Avicenna’s access to the anonymous translation, see 232); the most extensive recent summary of the scholarly debate is Elamrani-Jamal 2003. An additional difficulty is due to the fact that lammā (‘when’) is orthographically identical to limā (here ‘what [is seen or heard]’), which would also make sense in the present passage. For Avicenna’s brief reference to perception of perception, see Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 66–67 Rahman.

Self-cognition in the ancient heritage


activity involves a primitive type of self-awareness, no one seems to connect this view to De anima III.2. In the end, this is not even particularly surprising, for the tendency after Avicenna is to emphasize the independence of self-awareness from any kind of perception. Another framework in which pre-Avicennian Arabic philosophy addresses the self and self-cognition is the theory, also of Aristotelian provenance, of intellection as an identity or unity of the intellect in act and its intelligible object. If this unity between the two relata is understood in a strict manner, it has the consequence that, in the final analysis, all actual intellection is self-intellection. Although the theory was the subject of fierce debate in our period,11 it had an authoritative basis in the translations of some of the most highly regarded ancient metaphysical texts. In his discussion of the intellect in the third book of De anima, Aristotle makes the repeated claim that, in an act of intellection, the intellect is one with its object. Some of these statements are lost in the anonymous Arabic translation,12 but the following excursion to the intelligibility of the intellect clearly asserts the unity thesis about pure intellects that are completely unmixed with matter: [The intellect] is also understood just like other [things] that are understood. [In the case of] those in which there is no hyle, what understands and what is understood is a single thing.13

This is corroborated at length in Metaphysics XII and its account of how God as ‘thought thinking itself’ moves the world by functioning as its final cause. Without going into the details of this idea and its transmission into the Arabic, let us briefly cite two representative formulations in Ust.āth’s (ninth century CE) and Abū Bishr Mattā ibn Yūnus’ (d. 940 CE) translation, respectively:14 That which grasps itself (yafhamu dhātahu) is the intellect through the acquisition of what is understood, and it comes to be understood when it is in contact and grasps.15 11 12 13 14


As will be seen, Avicenna adamantly rejects the theory in his account of human intellection while Mullā S·adrā subscribes to it with equal conviction. Compare Ar. De an. III.5, 430a20 with Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.5, 430a20, 75. Ish.āq’s translation of this passage has not survived. Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.4, 430a3–5, 74. We do not have Ish.āq’s translation of the passage. For a concise account of the various Arabic versions of Aristotle’s Metaphysics as well as the attribution of the passages to Ust.āth and Mattā, see Bertolacci 2006, 5–35; and for the twelfth book in particular, Geoffroy 2003. Avicenna is argued to have read from Ust.āth’s translation (Geoffroy 2003; Janssens 2003a), but his version of the second passage does not seem to have survived. Ar. Met. XII.7, 1072b20–21; the Arabic text is in Averroes, Tafsīr mā ba‘d al-t.abī‘a, 1614 (cf. Genequand 1986, 157). Cf. Avicenna, Sharh. kitāb h.arf al-lām, 27.


Preliminary observations [T]herefore it [that is, the best possible thing] understands itself (ya‘aqilu dhātahu) since it is the most powerful, and it understands intellection. But it is always seen that knowledge, sense perception, opinion and intellection are of another, and when it comes to [them being] of themselves (li dhātihi), this is only by accident. Furthermore, if intellection is one thing and being understood another, to which of them will excellence belong? The thatness of intellection is not identical with being understood, like knowledge is the thing known in some things. In the case of intellectual things, the substance which is of no element and the what are [identical] in terms of thatness as well. As regards theoretical [things] (al-rā’īya), the thing is word and intellection, and so what is understood is not different from the intellection.16

What these passages make clear is that the unity between the cognitive subject and object holds of acts of pure intellection, that is, acts that have no relation whatsoever to anything material. It is also clear that Aristotle holds such strong cases of unity to amount to acts of self-intellection. But as the second passage indicates, not all acts of intellection are of this type, for there are cases in which the act of intellection, like acts proper to other modes of cognition, refers to an external object. Although Alexander of Aphrodisias (second to third centuries CE), perhaps the most venerated of Aristotle’s commentators for the Arabic philosophers, did seem willing to extend the thesis of unity to hold also of human intellects that are related to material bodies and actualized in time through a process of learning, he too wants to emphasize that the unity only holds of the subject and object in an act of intellection. In absolute terms the human intellect, which moves discursively from one act of intellection to another and is often in the state of potency with regard to most acts of intellection, is not identical to the intelligibles it is in principle capable of grasping.17 The idea of all intellection as self-intellection is even more explicit in some of the propositions of the Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d, a treatise ˙ attributed to Aristotle but in reality translated and adapted˙ from the Neoplatonist Proclus’ (d. 485 CE) Elements of Theology. Consider, for instance, the twelfth proposition: Every intellect understands itself (ya‘aqila dhātahu), that is, it is simultaneously what understands and what is understood. Therefore, since the intellect is both what understands and what is understood, it undoubtedly 16 17

Ar. Met. XII.9, 1074b33–1075a4; the Arabic text is in Averroes, Tafsīr mā ba‘d al-t.abī‘a, 1692–1693 (cf. Genequand 1986, 190–191). Cf. Avicenna, Sharh. kitāb h.arf al-lām, 31–32. Cf. al-Iskandar al-Afrūdīsī, Fī al-‘aql, 181–199 Finnegan; 31–42 Badawī. Alexander also suggests that there is a corresponding unity between the subject and object of actual sense perception. As argued by Kalin 2010, 17–25, in this regard he is an important predecessor for S·adrā’s broad concept of cognitive unity. For Alexander’s pivotal role in the transformation of Aristotelian noetics, see Moraux 1978.

Self-cognition in the ancient heritage


sees itself (yarā dhātahu). It knows that it is an intellect understanding itself (‘alima annahu ‘aqlun ya‘aqilu dhātahu). And when it knows itself (‘alima dhātahu), it knows the rest of the things that are under it, because they are from it.18

For the present concerns, we can set aside the vast differences between Proclean and Aristotelian metaphysics; the majority of the original readers of the two Arabic texts perceived them, if not always as originating from a single pen, at least as essentially compatible with each other. Thus, the point remains that when we abstract intellection from all concerns related to the perceptible world of concrete material entities, it consists in an undivided act in which the subject that understands is the very object understood, a single act of intellection with two interdependent structural constituents divisible in analysis but not in reality. However, as the end of the cryptoProclean passage clearly indicates, the paradigmatic case of cognitive unity is again a type of intellection that is quite distant from the human realm. We are dealing with an eternally actual intellect that is capable of bringing the world about through its overabundant act of self-intellection, that is, the Neoplatonic intellectual hypostasis which, when combined with the thought thinking itself that functions as the goal for all existing things in Metaphysics XII, acts as both the source and the point of return of the entire cosmos, including individual human intellects. Consequently, the sort of self-cognition these texts describe cannot be identified with any ordinary type of human self-awareness, at least not without a considerable amount of additional analysis and interpretation. This is not to deny that the idea of all actual intellection as self-intellection provided an ingredient for the concept of self-awareness emerging in Avicenna; on the contrary, as I will argue below, it seems natural to think that in articulating the novel concept Avicenna took his cue from precisely this piece of the tradition. However, the theory of all intellection as self-intellection, when considered alone and without further qualifications, seems insufficient to account for the emergence of the considerably more mundane concept of self-awareness that is our main concern in the present study. One way of describing the relation between human intellection and the sort of self-intellection we have just characterized is to conceive of the latter as the second perfection proper to human intellects. When a human being is born, her intellect is at the state of pure potency. However, it is not entirely non-existent, and since at least the potency exists we can say that the 18

Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d XII, 14–15; corresponding to Proclus, El. Th. 167–169. For very ˙ ˙ which corresponds to Proclus, El. Th. 83. similar formulations, see XIV, 16,


Preliminary observations

intellect proper to that human being has reached a state of first perfection which amounts to saying that it simply exists. As the person acquires knowledge through an arduous process of learning, her intellect proceeds to a state of greater perfection; this is, however, perfection no longer in the sense of simply existing but in the sense of existing in a more excellent way according to the standard proper to the sort of thing it is. The sense in which her intellect is more perfect is thus in terms of the second perfection of existing more or less well according to intellectual standards.19 The fact that the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic precedents for the Arabic discussion of self-cognition were designed to describe the second perfection proper to us as intellectual entities is particularly evident in the corpus known as the Arabic Plotinus. These texts are replete with uses of the term dhāt that read naturally as references to various self-relations entailing some kind of self-cognition (or self-recognition). Regular mention is made of, for instance, entering oneself (dakhala fī dhātī), returning to oneself (raja‘a fī dhātī), being inclined towards oneself (māla ilā dhātihi), and beholding oneself (naz· ara ilā dhātihi).20 Once these passages are read in their context, it soon becomes obvious that we are dealing with different aspects of the second perfection of human being. For example, the inclination towards the self is always portrayed in contrast to a corresponding mundane orientation that entails an emphasized attention to and striving for various worldly objects and objectives: one enters or returns to oneself precisely by withdrawing from the world and its concerns. The implied notion of the self is part and parcel of the general emanationist framework of the Arabic Plotinus, and it amounts to the type of upward epistrophe specific to human beings, to a turning back towards one’s origin in an imitation of its cognitive perfection. Extrapolating somewhat, we might say that this is self-cognition insofar as it amounts to the acquisition of a correct conception of one’s proper place in the cosmos of God’s creation, and to actions in accordance with this conception. Knowing oneself means recognizing one’s true self, what one is or can be according to the highest potencies inherent in one’s essence – not a mundane creature with a variety of ephemeral concerns but an intellectual entity capable of gazing at the divine. Thus, 19 20

For an excellent account of the emergence and maturation of this pair of concepts up to Avicenna, see Wisnovsky 2003, 21–144. See, respectively, ThA I, 22 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. IV.8.1.1–10); VI, 80–81 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. IV.4.43.16–44.6); VIII, 116–117; IX, 132–133 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. V.1.12.12–20); and cf. VIII, 111 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. V.1.4.18–25), 115–117 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. V.8.10.26–11.13); and the pseudo-Fārābian Risāla fī al-‘ilm al-ilāhī, 173–174 (corresponding to Plot. Enn. V.3.8.8–9.20).

Self-cognition in the ancient heritage


although the Arabic Plotinus addresses the human self in considerably broader terms than the narrow focus at self-intellection in Metaphysics XII and Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d allows, it remains on the level of what ˙ ˙ implied concept of self is something results from acquired knowledge. The we must strive to reach, and hence something that we do not initially have. This is clearly acknowledged by Abū Nas.r al-Fārābī (d. 950 CE) who in the Mabādi’ ārā’ ahl al-madīna al-fādila, right after describing the first principle ˙ understands itself, goes on to characterize of all existence as an intellect that it by distinguishing it from human intellects that need to acquire the intelligibles by means of which they can think themselves.21 In his brief treatise on the intellect, Fārābī makes the same point by stating that intellection becomes self-intellection only when the intellect is fully developed and can therefore dispense with any reference to external material objects.22 Although this inherited discussion on self-cognition and self-recognition mostly revolves around the benefits of purely immaterial intellection, it was brought to bear on more ephemeral cases of human intellection in a manner seemingly pertinent to our topic by the Constantinopolitan commentator Themistius (d. c. 388). In his remarks on De anima III.5, Themistius attempts to elucidate the distinction between the active and the passive intellect by means of a related distinction between I and what it is to be me. This he does by asking the question (which in spite of its originality is based on a perfectly sound Aristotelian distinction between an entity and its essence) of which of the two intellects, potential or active, we human beings should identify with. I wonder whether we are the intellect in potency or the intellect in act. We say that if in the case of all things composed of what is in potency and what is in act the thing is different from the existence of the thing, then I must also be different from the existence belonging to me (akūna anā aydān ghayra al˙ wujūdi lī), and so I am the intellect composed of what is in potency and what is in act, whereas the existence belonging to me is before that which is in act, that is, that which is [in act] through it. I know and confirm this in writing, for the intellect composed of what is in potency and what is in act writes, and its writing is not by means of what is in potency but rather by means of what is in act, the act emanating to it therefrom . . . Thus, just as the animal is something and the existence belonging to the animal something else, the 21


Fārābī, al-Madīna al-fādila I.1.6–7, 70–72 Walzer; 49–51 Cherni. This aspect of the first principle is ˙ then described as trickling downwards in the emanative chain until we reach the active intellect (al-Madīna al-fādila II.3.1–10, 100–104 Walzer; 81–87 Cherni). Fārābī, Risāla fī ˙al-‘aql, 18–19, 31–32.


Preliminary observations existence belonging to the animal being from the soul which belongs to the animal, similarly I am one thing and the existence belonging to me another thing, and the existence belonging to me is from the soul, but not from any soul, for it is not from the sensitive [soul], that being hyle for the imagination, nor from the imaginative, that being hyle for the intellect in potency, nor from the intellect in potency, that being hyle for the active intellect. Thus, since the existence belonging to me is from the active intellect alone, this alone is genuinely (bi al-s.ih.h.a) a form, or rather the form of forms, whereas the others are both subjects and forms.23

The intriguing example notwithstanding, a close reading of the passage reveals that Themistius is not concerned with the self and self-awareness as such. Rather, his point is to locate the individual human being in the dynamic relation between the material and the active intellect, which had become the central question of Aristotelian noetics since Alexander’s extended focus on the relevant sections of De anima. Themistius thus uses the first person for reasons that are primarily rhetorical or didactic, and the point could just as well be made by means of an individual human being and the essence of humanity. The second perfection proper to human beings is intellectual activity, and it is in this sense that the human first person, ‘I’ uttered by a human being, properly refers to an actual subject of intellection. The basis of this particular type of second perfection is to be found in the human essence, or, in Themistius’ terms, in the type of existence proper to me as a human being. This existence, the form of my being actually me, is provided by the active intellect, because any act of an intellect generated in time owes its actuality to the active intellect. Thus, in spite of the first-personal terms in which Themistius renders his case, the discussion reverts to the self in the sense of an actualized intellect, an entity that has already proceeded at least to some extent on the way towards the second perfection proper to it. Moreover, in spite of its obvious originality, this passage from Themistius seems never to have been brought up as having any relevance to self-awareness by any of our protagonists. Although he was, together with Alexander, absolutely pivotal to Averroes’ notorious idea of the shared material intellect,24 Themistius’ influence on the post-Avicennian discussion on self-awareness was all but negligible.



Themistius, Fī al-nafs VI, 182–183; cf. the Greek original in Themistius, in De an., 100,16–100,36, bearing in mind that the manuscript at the basis of Heinze’s edition belongs to a different branch of the manuscript tradition (see Lyons 1973, XIII). Cf. Averroes, in De an. III.1, 429a21–24, 387–413; for an English translation and the surviving Arabic fragments, see Taylor 2009, 303–329.

Self-cognition in the ancient heritage


As a final example of pre-Avicennian concepts of self-cognition, let us consider Aristotle’s statement according to which an actual intellect is capable of considering itself at will. As a possibility for intellects that are already actual, this type of intellectual self-reflection presupposes the selfintellection that results from the unity of the subject and object of intellection, and must therefore be distinguished from it. By the same token, it would seem to be even further removed from what each and every human being receives as her birthright. But since this particular concept of selfcognition resurfaces in one of Avicenna’s arguments for his own concept of self-awareness, it is worth briefly spelling out. The point is rendered with admirable clarity in the anonymous Arabic translation: Thus, when all we have told is in the state we have said before, [namely,] that the intellect is like the active knower (this it is when an act can be originated by it), then after its knowing it knows that it knows (‘alima annahu ‘ālim) within the limits of potency, but not like before it knew and before it found knowledge; and at that moment it can understand itself (ya‘aqila nafsahu).25

Once an act of intellection is realized, its subject can perform a reflective turn to understand its own activity. As Aristotle specifies later on in the same chapter, this second-order act of intellection is possible because the first-order act is immaterial,26 all intellection being based on a process of abstraction from material constraints. If materiality is the only obstacle of intellection, then the immaterial first-order act comes readily prepared to be understood at will. Importantly though, Aristotle also states that selfreflection must be preceded by actual intellection of some other thing; the human intellect is nothing before it understands something,27 and what is nothing cannot reflect on anything, not even itself. This is straightforward enough, and it was generally accepted by most philosophers in Arabic.28 What does, however, become a matter of debate is whether the potentiality of the individual human being’s material intellect is as pure as Aristotle suggests in the same context. Is there really no actual existence to it prior to the act of conceiving an abstract intelligible form that it receives from the active intellect? The problem of course is that any such existence would have to be spelled out in cognitive terms, given that the intellect is an immaterial entity whose existence primarily amounts to being a subject of cognition. If one cannot rely on any actual intellection, very few 25 26 28

Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.4, 429b6–9, 73. Ish.āq’s translation does not survive, but Avicenna discusses the passage in al-Ta‘līqāt ‘alā hawāshin kitāb al-nafs li Arist.ū, 103. Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.4, 430a3–9, 74. 27 Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.4, 429a23–25, b31–32; 74. For a rare example of debate, see Rāzī, Sharh. al-Ishārāt, I.169–173.


Preliminary observations

alternative routes remain open, which seems to confirm Aristotle’s point: self-awareness first arises through reflection. As we will see shortly, Avicenna does recognize a reflective type of selfawareness that he characterizes as awareness of awareness (shu‘ūr bi alshu‘ūr), and is followed in this regard by virtually all subsequent Islamic philosophers. However, this type of self-awareness is frequently discussed in the context of an argument designed to refute the claim of its foundational status. Thus, instead of subscribing to the Aristotelian thesis that the human intellect is nothing before it actually understands something, Avicenna presents his alternative concept of self-awareness in striking contrast to it. According to him, self-reflection requires as its condition of possibility that the human being capable of reflection is first aware of herself in some more primitive and more foundational sense. To thus sum up this quick foray to pre-Avicennian Arabic concepts of self and self-cognition, we can say that all the texts we have brought up hinge on the activity of either human or superhuman intellect. From an Avicennian point of view, they deal with something that presupposes, rather than explains, what should properly and in the most basic sense be called selfawareness. Although some of the features in the passages we have considered do arguably play a role in the emergence of Avicenna’s novel concept of selfawareness, they do not suffice to explain that emergence, nor can they provide the basis for an exhaustive understanding of that concept. We should not draw exaggerated conclusions from the fact that these pre-Avicennian texts use some of the same linguistic means to describe intellectual self-relations as Avicenna does to characterize self-awareness, for both the reflexive terms denoting the self (dhāt and nafs in particular) and the variety of cognitive terms applied to render the cognitive aspect of selfawareness would have been available in the relevant sense from nontechnical colloquial speech.29

1.2 Avicennian psychology in outline It is a widely recognized fact that with some exceptions, most notably the Andalusian tradition spearheaded by Averroes, Islamic philosophy from the twelfth century CE onwards can be legitimately summed up as ‘postAvicennian’.30 This is due to a seismic shift in terms of the texts that provide the foundation for the emphatically literary practice of Islamic philosophy. 29 30

For a brief account of these terms, see Appendix. Cf., for instance, Endress 1990; Michot 2003a, 2003b; Wisnovsky 2004b; Shihadeh 2005.

Avicennian psychology in outline


If Aristotle, the ‘First Teacher’, was not only the ceremonial master of philosophy but also the foremost textual authority for Avicenna and most of his predecessors, in the later period the role of authority is assumed by the ‘Chief Master’ (al-shaykh al-ra’īs). This is certainly true of the science of psychology, in the field of which the sixth part of Avicenna’s voluminous summa of philosophy, the Shifā’, becomes the authoritative textbook. As a result of this shift in authority, the entire discussion that we are about to chart takes place within the general framework of Avicennian psychology. Thus, I will briefly review four of its key doctrines in order to provide a point of quick reference that will assist in the understanding of some of the more detailed arguments in the core of our study. These doctrines are the Aristotelian theory of the three different functions of souls, Avicenna’s un-Aristotelian substance dualism, the principles of faculty psychology and the theory of internal sense faculties, and the cognitive psychological theory of the abstraction of forms from matter. The Aristotelian tripartition of souls and Avicenna’s substance dualism Avicenna subscribes to Aristotle’s definition of the soul as ‘the first perfection of a natural body possessed of organs that performs the activities of life’.31 Thus, the soul is the formal principle that makes the living body what it is and maintains it in actual existence. Now, since there are three general types of life – vegetative, which amounts only to self-nutrition, growth and reproduction, animal, which comprises in addition the activities of perception and voluntary motion, and human, which alone manifests rational cognition and action – Avicenna postulates, again following Aristotle, three corresponding types of soul, with each more perfect type performing the activities of the less perfect types in addition to those proper to it.32 In the third book of De anima, Aristotle raises the question of whether all three types of soul are enmattered formal principles, or whether the intellectual capacity of the human soul requires it to be an immaterial substance that performs a formal function but is strictly speaking not a material form.33 Although he clearly suggests that the intellectual capacity requires immateriality, Aristotle leaves the question of the exact consequences this has for the ontology of human souls sufficiently ambiguous for it to become a major question of debate in the subsequent tradition. Of the various 31 32 33

Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 12 Rahman; cf. Ar. De an. II.1, 412a26–27. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 39–40 Rahman; cf. Ar. De an. II.2, 413a20–413b13. Ar. De an. III.4, 429a18–21; III.5, 430a17–19.


Preliminary observations

alternatives,34 Avicenna opts for a full-blooded substance dualism: the individual human essence is an immaterial substance, which is not strictly speaking a form of the human body, although it does perform the functions of a form, animating and using the body for its own ends. This marriage of Aristotelian psychology and substance dualism is not an easy one, and one problematic consequence in particular is significant for Avicenna’s discussion of self-awareness. If the human essence is immaterial, why is it connected to a body in the first place? Like any other essence considered in itself and in abstraction from all relations to other things, such as matter or a body, the human essence is one, undivided and simple. In order to be instantiated in a multiplicity of numerically distinct individuals, the human essence – again, like any other essence – must be actualized in matter or in a sufficient relationship to matter. This is because only the unique spatiotemporal coordinates afforded by matter can individuate the essentially identical instantiations; for a simplified example, if we have two triangles with exactly matching dimensions, the only way to distinguish between the two is by attributing them with distinct co-ordinates. Thus, the soul and the body are in mutual need of each other, but for different reasons. The body requires the soul as a formal principle that animates it, or makes it a living body. The individual soul, on the other hand, needs the body as a necessary condition of its initially coming to be as an individual.35 This is because an individual human soul is emanated from the active intellect, the principle informing the entire sublunar world, only when a corporeal composite suitable for functioning as its body is formed in the mother’s womb.36 The material process alone is incapable of developing the embryo or the foetus to an individual human being capable of living on its own, for this requires a soul that has a separate origin. Thus, the emergence of the body is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of an individual soul. Nevertheless, the individual soul is intimately connected to its proper body through an inherent natural desire to govern, occupy itself with, and take care of the one body that is its own.37

34 35 36 37

For a useful summary of the pre-Avicennian reception of Aristotle’s theory of the intellect, see Davidson 1992, 7–73. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, 223–227 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 222–223. For a concise account of the Avicennian theory of emanation, see Davidson 1992, 74–83. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, 225 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 222–223. It is precisely on the basis of this intimacy that Avicenna rejects the transmigration of souls in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.4, 233–234 Rahman (cf. Najāt II.6, 227).

Avicennian psychology in outline


Although the human soul is thus genetically dependent on and therefore incapable of pre-existing the body, Avicenna still wants to maintain its ontological independence from the body after its inception. The relation between the soul and its body is, after all, merely accidental to the soul.38 Moreover, as Thérèse-Anne Druart has observed, Avicenna prefers to speak of the co-emergence of the soul and the body as a simple simultaneous happening; he never asserts that the body is a proper cause of the soul’s coming to be.39 The only cause the soul can have must be an intellectual principle that is situated above it in the cosmological hierarchy of emanation. But this principle, the active intellect, only contains the pre-individual human essence and thus requires the unique individuating conditions afforded by the suitable body in order to produce an individual soul. Thus, in Avicenna’s view the individual human being is a nodal point of two conflicting tendencies; eventually, the thorny question of the soul’s independence from the body returns to Avicenna in the form of the problem of how to reconcile individuality with immateriality after the demise of the body (see Chapter 3). Faculty psychology and the internal senses Although the concept of a psychological faculty, power or potency (Gr. dynamis, Ar. quwwa) can be found already in Aristotle, Avicenna represents a stage of comparative maturity in the development of the psychological method of faculty analysis. His general definition of the three types of soul by means of faculties characteristic of each is Aristotelian in outline,40 but the field in which he really comes into his own is the explanation of both human and non-human animal cognition. Here Avicenna’s most important contribution is the classification of five distinct faculties, the so-called internal senses (al-h.awāss al-bāt.ina), that take on the different activities of Aristotle’s phantasia.41 The classification is based on three criteria explicitly stated by Avicenna: (1) each distinct type of 38

39 40 41

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.4, 227–228 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 223–227. To be more precise, since Avicenna defines soul in relational terms as something that is in an animating relation to the body, we should say that being a soul is accidental to the individual human essence. Druart 2000, 262–263. Cf. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 39–41 Rahman, with Ar. De an. II.2, 413a20–413b13. An excellent concise account of Avicenna’s system of internal senses is Black 2000, 59–62. For other studies on some or all of the internal senses, see Wolfson 1973; Gätje 1988; Black 1993; and Hasse 2000, 127–141. That Avicenna’s system of internal senses is a differentiation of the distinct activities of phantasia is corroborated by Avicenna, al-Ta‘līqāt ‘alā hawāshin kitāb al-nafs li Arist.ū, 98 (cf. Averroes, Talkhīs kitāb al-h.iss wa al-mah.sûs, 39; and Tahāfut al-tahāfut [XVII].2, 546–547).


Preliminary observations

cognitive object requires a distinct faculty, (2) active and passive relations to an object require two respective faculties, (3) a receptive passive relation to an object is distinct from a retentive passive relation to it, and the two require two respective faculties.42 Since there are two types of objects, sensible forms (sing. sūra) and meanings inherent in them (sing. ma‘nā), there must be two corresponding classes of objects. Since there is both passive reception and active transformation of those objects, as exemplified by sense perception and creative imagination, there must be both passive and active faculties. Finally, since both forms and meanings are not only received but also retained for subsequent retrieval, there must be both receptive and retentive faculties for both types of object. Thus, the application of the three criteria yields Avicenna a system of five internal senses: 1. common sense (al-h.iss al-mushtarak) or fantasy (bant.āsiyā): reception of forms 2. imagery (khayāl) or the formative faculty (al-quwwa al-mutas.awwira): retention of forms 3. estimation (wahm): reception of meanings 4. memory (dhikr) or the retentive faculty (al-quwwa al-h.āfiz· a): retention of meanings 5. the imaginative faculty (al-quwwa al-mutakhayyila) or, in human animals, thought (fikr): separation and combination of forms and meanings.43 Our perceptual experiences are brought about through a co-operation of these faculties on the sense data provided by the five external senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). First, the common sense unites the various sense data into a synaesthetic whole, which is then retained in the formative faculty; thus, the formative faculty functions as a sort of memory for the sensible qualities of our experience. When the sense data have been apprehended as a synaesthetic whole, the estimative faculty is capable of apprehending the meaning carried in that whole. The exact nature of the meanings and the details of the consequent function of estimation are a matter of debate,44 but a reasonably uncontroversial case of estimative apprehension is Avicenna’s commonly cited example of a sheep’s apprehension of enmity in a wolf that it perceives. The enmity is not a sensible 42



Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 43–44 Rahman. Receptive and retentive faculties are distinguished because of different material qualities required in their respective organs: a faculty of reception must function by means of a relatively malleable organ, and a faculty of retention by means of a relatively rigid organ. This is the standard classification as presented in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 44–45 Rahman. For classificatory and terminological variations of the system of internal senses in Avicenna’s works, see Wolfson 1973, 276–282. Cf. Black 1993 with Hasse 2000, 127–141; I have presented my own view in Kaukua 2014a.

Avicennian psychology in outline


form, nor can it be reduced to any of the wolf’s sensible properties, and so it must be a distinct type of object, a meaning. Nevertheless, the sheep must somehow apprehend the enmity in the particular wolf it sees or smells, and so the meaning must be closely connected to, indeed inherent in, the synaesthetic perception of the wolf. These two features, non-sensibility and inherence in what is sensible, are the two features definitive of the Avicennian meanings. Once apprehended, the meanings are retained in the faculty of memory for subsequent retrieval. They are actively analysed and synthesized by the imaginative faculty, which also makes connections between meanings and sensible forms. This brief account may give an inadequately atomistic impression of Avicenna’s theory of the internal senses. To be sure, the distinctions are not merely conceptual, for Avicenna locates each faculty in a distinct part of the brain.45 But when he relates the activity of the faculties to their experiential counterparts that he expects his interlocutors to be familiar with, he usually describes their operation in strikingly holistic terms. For instance, the recognition of a perceived yellow substance as honey involves the retrieval of the corresponding meaning (‘honey’) from memory, an estimative apprehension of that meaning, the retrieval of complementary sensible qualities related to that meaning (for instance, sweetness) from the imagery, and the connection between the meaning and the related forms by the imagination.46 Apart from the perception of isolated simple qualities, perceptual cognition involves the system of internal senses as a whole. Abstraction According to Avicenna, all cognitive apprehension takes place through the acquisition of the form known, whether it is perceived or intellectually understood. If the form known is material to begin with, that is, if we perceive an individual human being for instance, her perceived form must first be separated or abstracted from her matter. In fact, Avicenna builds his entire theory of knowledge on this principle of increasing abstraction (tajrīd) of the form from its material features, classifying different types of cognition on the basis of how much of the material residue remains in the known form.47 45 46 47

Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 44–45 Rahman. This is my reconstruction of Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs IV.1, 166 Rahman. For a more detailed version, see Kaukua 2014a. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 58 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 207–208.


Preliminary observations

The type of cognition most intimately connected with matter is sense perception, because it can only take place at the actual presence of an extramental object that is perceived. This is only reasonable, since sense perception depends for its actuality on the causal influence of the extramental object; if the perceivable features of the person in front of me leave no traces in my sense organs, there is no way I can perceive her. For the same reason, I can only perceive the person’s form as accompanied by a number of features that are accidental to the form that makes her a human being; by necessity she will stand in a certain place at a certain time, be of a certain length, weight, complexion and so forth.48 When the perceived form is transferred from the common sense to the imagery, we arrive at the second stage of abstraction. The increased abstractness of the form retained in the imagery is not due to any change in its qualitative features; the perceived person that remains in this faculty is still spatiotemporally located and clothed in features due to her embodiment. But the existence of the cognitive form is no longer immediately dependent on the presence of the extramental person, for once acquired in the imagery, it can be retrieved for further consideration at will, without any external causal influence.49 The estimative apprehension of meanings is the next stage in the gradual abstraction of the cognitive form. Here, for the first time, we are dealing with aspects of the person that are not reducible to her perceivable features – the mysterious feature that allows me to recognize a person I am already acquainted with, despite all the interim changes in her appearance. Since such recognition is common to us and non-human animals that lack the conceptual capacities proper to intellectual beings, it must have its basis in a shared psychological faculty, and the only Avicennian alternative is estimation. But although estimative apprehension of the form of the person is above her perceivable features, it is not entirely abstract from them, for it can only be apprehended as something that is carried by those features, or something inherent to them, separable in analysis but not in reality. I can recognize the person and realize that my recognition is not due to any particular thing in her appearance, but I cannot recognize her without that appearance.50

48 49 50

Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 59 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 208. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 59–60 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 208–209. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 60–61 Rahman; cf. Najāt II.6, 39–40. On estimation and this kind of incidental perception, see Black 1993, 225–227.

Avicennian psychology in outline


The highest grade of abstraction in human cognition is that of intellectual apprehension of the form. Here the form is abstracted from all of its accidental features, which enables one to understand the essence of the person, that which really makes the person the human being she is. Since this essence is separated from the accidental features that render an individual distinct from other individuals of the same species, the intellectual form is potentially shared by many perceived individuals, making it a universal concept.51 To conclude, it is important to point out a crucial difference between intellection and the other types of human cognition. All cognition up to the level of estimation involves the abstractive activity of the human soul, and follows a strictly bottom-up chain of causal conditions. Sense perception depends on the activity of the extramental object, the soul’s retention of the form in the imagery depends on the prior existence of the form, and the estimative act of abstraction presupposes some synaesthetic whole that carries its proper object. But when we reach intellection, the soul becomes dependent on a higher principle, namely the active intellect which is required to emanate either an intellectual ‘light’ that enables the soul to apprehend the intellectual form in the object of the lower faculties,52 or the intelligible forms as such.53 51 52 53

Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs II.2, 61; cf. Najāt II.6, 209–210. The metaphor of intellectual light is of course not particular to Avicenna; in this context, it is ultimately derived from Ar. De an. III.5, 430a14–17. The question of where the soul’s activity ends and that of the active intellect begins is a matter of debate. According to the traditional view, the soul simply receives intelligible forms when it is sufficiently prepared (see, for instance, Goichon 1937, 309; Gardet 1951, 151; Rahman 1958, 15; Weisheipl 1982, 150; Davidson 1992, 93–94; Black 1997, 445), but Hasse 2001 (cf. also Gutas 2012) presents substantial evidence for the view that intellection depends more intimately on the soul’s abstractive activity, and that all that the soul receives from the active intellect is the light that enables it to “see” the intellectual form in the prepared object.

chapter 2

Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness: the experiential basis of the flying man

Abū ‘Alī H · usayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, the Latin Avicenna, is undoubtedly the most famous of the philosophers writing in Arabic and in the cultural context of Islam.1 What is more, his fame is by and large deserved. By the death of the Persian polymath in 1037 following a series of failed attempts at curing an intestinal complaint, Arabic philosophy had reached a level of maturity at which the ancient inheritance had been digested into a system of thought that had proven, and would prove, capable of incorporating indigenous ideas, both critical and constructive, and was strong enough to penetrate most areas of Islamic learning.2 In the subsequent centuries, authors in search of the philosophical stance would increasingly revisit Avicenna before Aristotle, the first teacher. In this regard, it is relatively uncontroversial to state that Avicenna was a philosophical renovator. This, however, is not always readily apparent. Like most of his philosophical contemporaries, he holds on to the Peripatetic framework, with the Neoplatonic twist prominent in the late ancient philosophical schools, and does not aim at a shift of the philosophical paradigm. But within the received framework, he finds plenty of room to reformulate questions and responses, to develop arguments against novel problems, and to integrate new phenomena into the system. The focus of the present study is precisely on such a point of new concerns. The type of self-awareness Avicenna introduces in his psychology did not have a ready-made locus of discussion in the Peripatetic framework. And in fact, as witnessed particularly by some of the posthumously collected correspondence investigated below, it did not always sit particularly well, and certainly not without significant conceptual revisions, in the systematic 1 2

As a result, there are several introductions to his life, thought, and cultural milieu. For two excellent places to start, see Gutas 1988 and McGinnis 2010. For this “naturalization” of Avicennian thought, see Endress 1990, 30–37; Michot 2003a, 2003b; and Wisnovsky 2004b.


The purpose and basis of the flying man


niche Avicenna envisioned for it. In light of the reluctance and straightforward opposition of some of his contemporaries, it seems warranted to say that the concept of self-awareness Avicenna introduces, as well as many of the means of describing its foundational phenomenon, was a philosophical novelty. This is not to say that he instigated the discussion out of nothing. Meryem Sebti3 has unearthed arguments strikingly similar to Avicenna’s in the so-called Kitāb mu‘ādhala al-nafs (‘The Book of the Castigation of Soul’, a work of late ancient provenance that was likely a part of the Hermetic corpus),4 and in the early ninth century Mu‘tazilite Mu‘ammar ibn ‘Abbād al-Sulamī.5 However, the systematic integration of these ideas into the philosophical tradition is, as far as I am able to tell, a genuinely Avicennian move. Avicenna’s approach does have similarities with certain ancient discussions, for instance in Galen,6 Plotinus and Augustine, but in the absence of obvious textual predecessors connections will remain speculative.

2.1 The purpose and basis of the flying man Avicenna begins the discussion of the soul in the Shifā’ by arguing that the soul is something the natural philosopher has to postulate due to the fact that she perceives life in the physical world about her. The animate processes and actions in which life appears to her – nutrition, growth, reproduction, perception and voluntary movement – are subject to such a great variation that they cannot be explained merely by recourse to the account of the general types of natural motion as described in physics. Thus, there must be a specific agent behind those actions, and that is what the natural philosopher calls soul (nafs).7 Having shown that there must be souls, Avicenna proceeds to consider the various traditional attempts at the definition of the term ‘soul’. These considerations revolve around the necessity to make room in the definition for all the different kinds of entities that can function as souls. In the philosophical tradition, the soul has been defined as the capacity (quwwa) to act in the animate body, the potency (quwwa) to receive cognitive objects, and as the form (s.ūra) of the animate body. For Avicenna, all of these definitions are too limiting. The two senses of quwwa both pick up 3 5 6

Sebti 2000, 118–119. 4 Kitāb mu‘ādhala al-nafs 14, 112. An argument based on self-awareness is attributed to Mu‘ammar in Jāh.iz·, al-Masā’il wa al-jawābāt li al-ma‘rifa 4, 51. Cf. Walzer 1954, especially 255–256. 7 Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 4 Rahman.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

one aspect of the soul’s various responsibilities in relation to bodies but exclude others, and so neither can be a general definition applicable to all kinds of souls. Similarly, if we define the soul as a form in the strict technical sense of a hylomorphic principle which informs matter by inhering in it, we end up excluding from our definition those entities that do not inhere in matter but do function as souls in relation to it. Thus, if we want to include such obviously immaterial entities as the celestial souls in our definition, we cannot define the soul as a form.8 The definition Avicenna arrives at by excluding the alternatives is soul as perfection (kamāl) of the genus ‘living body’. The actually existing soul perfects the genus by first bringing it into existence through the differentia specific to the actual soul, that is, as a vegetal, animal or human body.9 Avicenna further specifies this definition by distinguishing between first and second perfection, or between ‘that through which the species becomes an actual species, like the shape for the sword’, and ‘the actions and passions which follow from the species of the thing, like cutting for the sword’.10 Since a living thing is alive already at the stage of first perfection, the soul in the most general sense must be a first perfection. By means of these argumentative moves Avicenna comes to define the soul as the ‘first perfection of a natural organic body which performs the acts of life’.11 So far the moves, including the definition they have yielded as their conclusion, are of course perfectly familiar. However, it is important to note that for Avicenna ‘soul’ is a relational term, that is, it refers to the agent behind animate actions insofar as it is the agent of those actions and therefore has a relation to the body in which they take place. Thus, although the natural philosopher has to postulate the existence of something that functions as a soul, she will not thereby have made any assumptions about the nature of or the category proper to that thing as it is in itself.12 If that thing happens to be a substance independent of the body which it animates, being a soul may be a mere accident to it, yet the natural philosopher will 8 9



Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 6–8 Rahman. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 6–8, 12 Rahman. Cf. I.5, 40 Rahman, which clarifies that the vegetative soul is the genus of the animal soul, and the animal soul the genus of the human soul. This sense of perfection is discussed in more general terms in Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.3.8–9, 164–166; and V.6.2, 175–176. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 11 Rahman. Robert Wisnovsky (2003, 120–127) has found three different though reconcilable distinctions between first and second perfection in Avicenna. The present context is the primary locus for the distinction between form (first perfection) and function (second perfection). The other distinctions are between the principle of an activity (first perfection) and the activity itself (second perfection) and what can be considered foundational to the other two, between what is necessary for existence (first perfection) and what is necessary for existing well (second perfection). Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 12 Rahman. 12 Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 4–5 Rahman.

The purpose and basis of the flying man


nevertheless study it just in that regard, that is, as a soul that causes a particular kind of motion in the body.13 But in spite of this qualification, Avicenna concludes the first chapter of the psychological section of the Shifā’ by considering the question of whether the human soul as the thing which performs the animating acts proper to its relation with a human body is exhaustively grasped when it is understood as a soul. In other words, is the human soul, like the souls of plants and animals, a material form and therefore reducible to its animating agency, or does it, like the celestial souls, exist apart from these acts and independent of the body? A demonstrated answer to this question will have to wait until the last book of the psychological section of the Shifā’. However, Avicenna decides to lay his cards on the table from the very beginning by presenting a socalled ‘reminder’ (tanbīh) or a ‘pointer’ (ishāra) towards the correct view. We have now come to know the meaning of the name bestowed on the thing that is called soul due to a relation it has, and so we should strive to apprehend the quiddity of this thing which has become a soul by the aforementioned consideration; in this place we must point towards (nushīra) establishing the existence of the soul that we have by means of a reminder (al-tanbīh) and a call for attention (al-tadhkīr), by a pointer that will be found apposite to the situation (ishāratan sadīdata al-mawqi‘) by one who has the capacity to see the truth by himself without the need to educate him, prod him onwards, and divert him from fallacies.14

‘Reminder’ and ‘pointer’ are closely related technical terms which denote a call for attention to something one is vaguely or inexplicitly aware of but which tends to elude one’s explicit attention. This ‘indicative method’15 can be used instead of a proper demonstration for educational purposes in order to have the student arrive at the necessary conclusion by herself and in the course of so doing understand the matter at hand more thoroughly than would be the case had the teacher given a ready-made demonstration that could be learnt by heart. But sometimes a reminder may be the only available method of argument, as for instance in the case of arguing for the first principles of all intellection. Since such principles are foundational to all acts of intellection, they cannot in turn be founded through a demonstration which relies on them. Instead, the only way to convince 13 15

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 9–10 Rahman. 14 Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 15–16 Rahman. See Gutas 1988, 307–311, with a focus on ishāra. Although there may be a nuanced difference in meaning between ishāra and tanbīh, with tanbīh carrying connotations of correction whereas ishāra rather suggests that something is introduced that one has not hitherto considered, from the point of view of the present study the two terms can be considered synonymous. In any case, both terms figure in our text without an obvious difference in meaning.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

one’s interlocutor of their necessity is by indicating their presence in her thinking, that is, by reminding her that she in fact assumes their validity even when adopting a sceptical stance towards them.16 The reminder Avicenna applies in our context is of course the famous thought experiment of the flying or the floating man.17 It is used to argue for the initial plausibility of the substance dualist view that there might be something to human being apart from embodied existence. In other words, it is intended to convince the reader who fails to see that the thing which is a soul for the human body can be something in itself, independent of its relation to the body, and it does this by showing that there is a feature in our experience that gives a clue of what the incorporeal existence could possibly consist in. As a reminder the flying man is not presented as a demonstration or a definitive argument for the human soul’s existence as an immaterial substance. Avicenna clearly thinks that substance dualism can be properly demonstrated, although not without a significant amount of additional knowledge, part of which will be acquired in the course of the psychological research we are presently initiating.18 In that respect, the introductory chapter is not the proper place for a demonstrated answer. However, the reason to apply the method of reminding in the present context is very similar to that described in the case of the first principles of intellection. Avicenna uses the reminder to make us pay attention to something that is and has always been there for us but that we seldom take heed of. This new focus of attention is then suggested to be relevant to the question of whether the human soul is merely a soul or whether it exists in itself apart from this function. These methodological remarks are important because once the flying man is read in this light it will be hard to deny that the argument hinges on evidence that is supposed to be phenomenally or experientially given. Although the argument may be per impossibile, it is still used to point out something present to the reader’s experience instead of, say, a mere logical necessity or a transcendental condition for the possibility of something else. Indeed, later on in another instance of the flying man, Avicenna explicitly 16 17


Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt I.5.1–5, 22–23. In the context, Marmura translates tanbīh as ‘drawing attention’. For a similar claim in a psychological context, see Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 257 Rahman. Avicenna himself does not use the title, and as far as I have been able to ascertain it is only used in secondary literature. The earliest instance seems to be Gilson 1929, 41. The thought experiment comes up in several occasions and in many different works of Avicenna. For a seminal overview of three instances, see Marmura 1986. Other passages are introduced in Hasse 2000, 81–82. The demonstration, which is based on the capacity for intellection inherent in the human soul, is first presented in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.2, 209–216 Rahman; that is, in the last book of the work.

The purpose and basis of the flying man


says that the evidence this reminder points towards ‘is exemplified in myself’ (yakūna tamaththuluhu . . . fī nafsī), but I need to be alerted to this example in myself because of my tendency to neglect it in favour of other, bodyrelated contents of my experience.19 But in order finally to get to what it is that should be experientially given here, let us have a closer look at the reminder itself. So we say: one of us must imagine (yatawahhama) himself so that he is created all at once and perfect but his sight is veiled from seeing external [things], that he is created floating in the air or in a void so that the resistance of the air does not hit him – a hit he would have to sense – and that his limbs are separated from each other so that they do not meet or touch each other. [He must] then consider whether he affirms the existence of his self (wujūda dhātihi). He will not hesitate in affirming that his self exists (li dhātihi mawjūdatan), but he will not thereby affirm any of his limbs, any of his intestines, the heart or the brain, or any external thing. Rather, he will affirm his self (dhātahu) without affirming for it length, breadth or depth. If it were possible for him in that state to imagine (yatakhayyala) a hand or some other limb, he would not imagine it as part of his self (dhātihi) or a condition in his self (shart.an fī dhātihi). You know that what is affirmed is different from what is not affirmed and what is confirmed is different from what is not confirmed.20 Hence the self (dhāt) whose existence he has affirmed is specific to him in that it is he himself (huwa bi ‘aynihi), different from his body and limbs which he has not affirmed. Thus, he who takes heed (al-mutanabbih) has the means to take heed of (yatanabbaha) the existence of the soul (wujūdi al-nafs) as something different from the body – indeed, as different from any body – and to know and be aware of it (annahu ‘ārifun bihi mustash‘irun lahu).21

The general idea of the argument is quite uncontroversial.22 Evidently, the thought experiment aims at an analytical distinction of an aspect of 19


21 22

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 257 Rahman. Moreover, in his defence of the argument against Abū al-Qāsim al-Kirmānī’s critical remarks, Avicenna explicitly says that it is based on the interlocutor’s contemplation of his own state, which is something not everyone is capable of (see Mubāh.athāt III.58–59 Bīdārfar; Michot 1997, 170). The full importance of this point will be forcefully brought home once we get to explicate what Avicenna thinks self-awareness amounts to, for experiential familiarity with the phenomenon will then be a crucial criterion in our reconstruction of his concept of self-awareness. Whatever other features the concept will have, it must refer to something readily available in our own experience. I have chosen to follow Bakoš’ reading of al-muqarru bihi and yuqarru bihi (‘what is confirmed’ and ‘what is not confirmed’, respectively) instead of Rahman’s al-maqraba and yaqrabuhu. Orthographically very similar, both readings are supported by manuscript evidence. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 16 Rahman; 18–19 Bakoš. Indeed, there is a widespread consensus about how the thought experiment should be conducted (cf. Rahman 1952, 9–11; Galindo-Aguilar 1958; Arnaldez 1972; Marmura 1986; Druart 1988; Davidson 1992, 83; Hasse 2000, 80–87), although there are almost as many views about its purpose as there are scholars. For a concise overview of the different interpretations, see Hasse 2000, 86.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

experience by means of an imaginative bracketing of other aspects of experience which tend to hide the one Avicenna wants us to pay attention to. Since he is interested in the question of whether we can find any experiential support for the idea that the human soul is independent from the body, and hence an immaterial substance, he starts by setting aside all those aspects of experience that involve the body or that require embodiment. The most obvious of these aspects is perception, and that is why the flying man is carefully described to be in a position where none of his senses is capable of transmitting any sensations to him. Even his sense of touch is rendered ineffective by ensuring that there are absolutely no impulses to the organ of touch from either his own body or the surrounding air. Secondly, since the flying man is supposed to be created immediately to his state, he cannot have any imaginative, estimative or memorative aspects of experience either. This is because all imagination, estimation and recollection are based on the prior appearance of sensory data, which these so-called internal senses (al-h.awāssu al-bāt.ina) then subject to their respective actions.23 By the same token, this excludes all actual intellection as well, since, in Avicenna’s empiristic epistemology, whatever human beings come to know, they will have acquired by means of an abstractive operation performed on sense perceptions, which thus are a necessary condition of human intellection as well.24 Thus, the flying man has no objective content of experience whatsoever, no acts of perception, imagination or intellection, nothing. Having imagined this state, I must then ask whether there is anything left to my experience. Avicenna states as obvious that my answer must be affirmative: I will still experience my own dhāt to exist, and I will have to affirm that this dhāt is me. In other words, I myself will still be there as something I am aware of. This, for Avicenna, points towards substance dualism insofar as it gives us a concrete experiential sense of what the existence of the thing that functions as our soul could possibly be in separation from the body of which it is the soul and connected to which it normally appears. When we consider the way in which Avicenna applies my awareness of myself as a pointer towards substance dualism, we have to conclude that he takes self-awareness to be a phenomenal feature of experience, not a mere transcendental or logical condition. Thus, in order to function as a pointer, self-awareness has to be accessible to each and every one of Avicenna’s interlocutors as an uncontroversial constituent of 23 24

Shifā’: al-nafs I.5, 43–44 Rahman; see Chapter 1.2, 25–27. For Avicenna’s cognitive psychology, see Chapter 1.2, 27–29.

The validity and plausibility of the flying man


experience, quite regardless of whether we ultimately agree that it has the suggestive power in favour of the substance dualism that Avicenna builds upon here.25

2.2 The validity and plausibility of the flying man Although the ultimate goal of the present study is to understand what sort of phenomenon Avicenna casts in the pivotal role here, we should briefly consider whether the argument hinging on it is convincing, or even formally valid. This is particularly the case because, as many scholars have pointed out,26 it seems to commit the rather blatant fallacy of proceeding from an epistemic or phenomenological distinction to a metaphysical one. For a contemporary reader versed in the philosophy of mind, this is obvious: the fact that the brain or the extended neural network of my body does not figure in the phenomenology of my first-personal experience does clearly not warrant the conclusion that my experience is metaphysically independent of them, for it is perfectly possible, even likely, that my experience is opaque in the sense that mere introspection will never reveal its physical foundation. Indeed, if Avicenna intends the flying man to demonstrate the immateriality of the entity that functions as a soul in the human body, it is difficult not to judge the argument as fatally fallacious. Moreover, there are sound reasons for thinking that he may have intended the argument as at least a sketch for a complete demonstration. Ibn Kammūna, a thirteenth-century CE commentator, attempted to flesh it out into a syllogism,27 and we 25

26 27

Thus, my reconstruction of the argument’s procedure is inverse to Marmura’s (1986, 387–388), according to whom the flying man first makes us alert ‘to the existence of the self as immaterial and subsequently to the experiential knowledge of this immaterial existence . . . In other words, we discern here two stages of knowing. The first is knowing that the self is immaterial, leading to the second, the experiential knowledge of one’s self as an immaterial entity.’ I find this order of procedure – that is, from a theoretical observation to experiential knowledge – problematic for two reasons. First of all, it is difficult to see how a piece of personal experiential knowledge, which Marmura suggests as the ultimate result of the thought experiment, would be a particularly relevant conclusion in the context of scientific psychology dealing with universal natural truths. Rather, it seems clear to me that Avicenna is interested in what the things that function as souls in human bodies are in general, even if he applies the particular case of the interlocutor’s own soul as a means to reach the general conclusion. But more importantly, although we may come to learn something about our particular selves in the thought process, the experiential level must have been there from the very beginning as the basis of the entire argument. If there is no uncontroversial shared starting point to pay attention to by means of the flying man (a starting point which I argue Avicenna takes to be found in all human experience), he will be hung in thin air, indeed. For particularly lucid statements of this case, see Sebti 2000, 121–122; and Black 2008, 65. See Muehlethaler 2009.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

cannot be certain that he was not thereby merely following a wellestablished line of interpretation. Furthermore, some of Avicenna’s own descriptions of the ‘indicative method’ suggest that pointers and reminders should indeed be so fleshed out by the apt reader.28 However, if we allow the flying man to be a less stringent application of the indicative method, the looming fallacy need not be fatal. In this reading, the argument is only designed to point towards the substance dualism Avicenna will eventually demonstrate by other means, or, to put it another way, give a concrete idea of what the existence of an immaterial human substance could be when separated from the body we commonly find it conjoined with. This would be achieved not by painting a narrative picture of an otherworldly type of existence, but rather by pointing out a plausible candidate in perfectly commonplace human experience. Avicenna could then meet the dissatisfied reader accusing him of the fallacy by simply recognizing that the argument does not work in her case and asking for some patience until the proper demonstration of the human substance’s immateriality in the fifth book of Shifā’: Fī al-nafs.29 But whatever the eventual verdict, the argument loses none of its relevance for our present purpose of reconstructing Avicenna’s concept of selfawareness – as long as it is agreed that some kind of self-awareness, the precise nature of which remains to be determined, is pivotal to it. However, even this is controversial, for in one of the most extended studies of Avicenna’s psychology, Dag Hasse has argued in extenso that the flying man is not about self-awareness in the first place, and a fortiori not based on a phenomenal feature of experience. According to him, reading dhāt as ‘self’, although linguistically legitimate, is not warranted by the context. This is first of all because the flying man recurs in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, with an explicit reference to the passage from chapter I.1 that we have just 28 29

Cf. Ishārāt, 1; and see Gutas 1988, 307–311. Two further fallacies have been detected in the flying man, neither of which is as striking as the one above. The first of these is perceived in Avicenna’s procedure from the flying man’s knowledge that he is to the knowledge of what he is, that is, from mere self-awareness to an awareness of the self as an immaterial substance, even though the flying man was supposed not to have any actual intellectual content (such as the concepts ‘immaterial’ and ‘substance’). In my view, this alleged fallacy is based on a confusion between what the flying man is supposed to be aware of and what the performer of the thought experiment concludes on that basis. The latter is of course not required to lack actual intellection or to be unable to apply concepts to the awareness paid attention to by means of the thought experiment. The second fallacy (noted by Marmura 1986, 388) is claimed to lie in Avicenna’s procedure from a hypothetical example to categorical ends. This may well be a fallacy, but if it is one, it is common to all thought experiments, and as such far beyond the confines of the present study. For an excellent extended discussion of the question of the validity of thought experiments in philosophical psychology, see Wilkes 1993, 1–48.

The validity and plausibility of the flying man


investigated but without a single occurrence of dhāt, having us instead affirm the existence of our ‘thatness’ (annīya), the bare fact that we are there.30 Hasse suggests that this is also the sense in which we should understand dhāt in I.1, and so ‘the common denominator of the two words is something unspecific like “core being”.’31 Secondly, Hasse thinks that since the context is concerned with what the soul is in itself, that is, its essence, in distinction from the soul-relation it has to the body, we should read dhāt as denoting ‘essence’.32 Thus, the text is concerned with the affirmation of an essence, or rather the existence of an essence, independent of the body to which it is related.33 Hasse explicitly addresses the suggested possibility that Avicenna’s use of dhāt is ambiguous and that the word means both ‘essence’ and ‘self’, but argues that it univocally stands for ‘essence’: ‘To conclude, the Flying Man does not have “immediate access” to himself, nor is he “conscious of his existence” or “fully aware of his personal existence”, nor does he “affirm his existence”, but he affirms the existence of his core entity, his essence, while not affirming the existence of his body.’34 Obviously, if Hasse’s categorical denial of the relevance of self-awareness to the flying man is correct, my claim that in the argument Avicenna relies on an explicit phenomenon of self-awareness will be completely unfounded. But let us pause to consider what argumentative power the thought experiment will have once we take the evidence of immediate self-awareness out of the equation. Having bracketed all objective content of experience, what grounds do I have for claiming that I am aware of my essence? What would awareness of essence in this case consist in? It cannot be awareness of the concept of human being, or any other concept my essence can be subsumed under, because all intellection was ruled out in the construction of the thought experiment. Since alternatives other than intellection are even harder to come by, it seems that without a reference to some kind of self-awareness, to the fact that I will still be there even though I am not aware of my body or indeed anything else at all, the thought experiment is unconvincing at best, downright incoherent at worst. This is not to say that my interpretation pushes Avicenna’s attempt to argue for his substance 30 31 32 33 34

The passage in question is Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 255 Rahman. I will quote and discuss the passage below in Chapter 4, 66–71. Hasse 2000, 83. Hasse 2000, 83. This of course accords with the frequent technical use of the term in philosophical Arabic. See Appendix, as well as Rahman 1991 and Goichon 1938, 134–139. Hasse 2000, 83–84. Hasse 2000, 86. The quotes of the interpretations Hasse rejects are, respectively, from Druart 1988, 34; Davidson 1992, 83; Pines 1970, 808; Rahman 1952, 10; and Marmura 1986, 387.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

dualism beyond debate, but I do claim that the more charitable interpretation will in the very least retain some initial plausibility for the argument. On the other hand, although the word dhāt does not appear in the flying man of Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, the context of the argument’s application in that chapter makes the connection to self-awareness, if possible, even more prominent. The pressing question here is how to account for the fact that our experiences tend to be coherent and unified wholes of complex constituents in face of Avicenna’s stringent distinctions between the cognitive and conative faculties responsible for those constituents. In other words, how is it possible that I smell freshly brewed coffee, develop a desire for a cup and stand up to fetch one, if the olfactory perception, the desire and the muscular movement are acts of distinct and unconnected faculties, which produce distinct and unconnected constituents of experience? Avicenna’s strategy in the solution is to argue for the necessity of a single subject or agent behind the distinct acts, the inviolable unity of which will be sufficient to connect the acts to the sort of whole we recognize in our experience. He goes on to characterize ‘this single thing in which these faculties are conjoined’, the human soul, by appealing to the intuition of his interlocutors, saying that it is ‘the thing that each of us sees as himself (al-shay’u al-ladhī yarāhu kullun minnā dhātahu)’.35 In this general context, the flying man figures in a more specific argument against the claim that this ‘thing that each of us sees as himself’ is the body as a whole: since one can be aware of the unifying subject that one is oneself without being aware of the body (as the flying man is supposed to show), the body cannot be the unifying subject. Thus, contrary to what Hasse claims, once we have a look at the larger context of Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, we see that Avicenna explicitly refers to self-awareness, and precisely in a sense which he clearly believes is perfectly familiar to his readers from their own experience, in the immediate context of the flying man. The fact that Avicenna speaks of knowing the existence of one’s annīya in the flying man in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7 need not be a problem either, for annīya refers to the fact that (anna) a thing exists and can thus be translated as ‘thatness’.36 As a technical term, it is diametrically opposed to māhīya, which is derived from the question mā huwa (what is it?) and can be



Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 253 Rahman. The point is made more emphatically after the flying man at 256–257. I discuss the entire context in detail below in Chapter 4, 66–71. On the contexts of the two versions, see Marmura 1986, 385–390. See d’Alverny 1959, 73.

The validity and plausibility of the flying man


translated as ‘quiddity’ or ‘whatness’.37 Now, insofar as an essence that can be known is an answer to the question what and therefore a quiddity, it would seem that Hasse’s argument for excluding the interpretation of dhāt as ‘self’ in the flying man of Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1 falls through. For certainly the immediate awareness of the fact that one exists is cognitively less developed than the knowledge of what one is by essence. Moreover, knowing that one’s essence exists certainly requires some sort of cognitive grasp of the essence, which brings us back to the problem we started with, that is, if we conceive of this grasp as a normal case of intellection, it will be incoherent with the peculiar conditions posed in the thought experiment. Thus, I argue that Hasse’s arguments are insufficient to rule out the most obvious interpretation of the flying man, that is, as an argument which hinges on the phenomenon of self-awareness. The fact that dhāt also means essence is something that Avicenna may not have seen necessary to rule out, for as I will argue later on, there is a sense in which awareness of oneself indeed is the existence of an individual essence. In light of texts in which this identification is most explicit,38 the question rather becomes whether Avicenna even recognized a need for a rigorous distinction between the two senses of dhāt. If self-awareness is awareness of the very core of one’s being, and if the very core of the being of anything is its essence which prevails unchanged in the flux of the various accidents appended to it, then the two indeed merge into one instead of excluding each other. In this sense, I am in agreement with Hasse’s conclusion: the flying man does hinge on affirming the existence of one’s essence as separated from the body. The difference is that I fail to see how that conclusion can be reached without the pivotal identification of awareness of that essence with self-awareness. But in order to not run too far ahead, let us briefly summarize the main argument of the present section. I have claimed that a close reading of the thought experiment known as the flying man shows us, first, that Avicenna recognizes the phenomenon of self-awareness as something we all can recognize in our own experience. But what is more, it shows that Avicenna thinks this phenomenon has considerable psychological relevance. Indeed, considering the fact that self-awareness figures prominently in the introductory chapter of the psychological section of Avicenna’s most 37


In this light Avicenna’s formulation that the flying man knows ‘the existence of his thatness’ may seem strangely redundant, for it could be explicated as knowing the existence of the fact that one exists, which is one step removed from knowing one’s existence. However, I believe this can be explained by recourse to the frequent use of annīya in reference to the individual thing instead of its quiddity. Cf. d’Alverny 1959, 80–81. Cf. Ta‘līqāt, 160–161. This text is discussed in detail in Chapter 3.2.


Avicenna and the phenomenon of self-awareness

extensive philosophical summa, and that it provides the starting point for the investigation of the soul in perhaps his most independent mature work, al-Ishārāt wa al-tanbīhāt,39 he must have perceived it as not having received its proper due from his predecessors in philosophical psychology. So far, however, we do not know what exactly Avicenna thinks self-awareness consists in, how it should be described, or whether it can be analysed or explained by recourse to more basic phenomena. All we have found out is that he believes that such a phenomenon can be determined and pointed to, and perhaps even expects it to be relatively uncontroversial once it has been sufficiently determined and distinguished from other features of common experience by such means as the flying man. Indeed, if we recall the suggested similarity between self-awareness and first intelligibles, it should be as obvious as the laws of the excluded middle or non-contradiction. Avicenna also suggests that as such a basic fact of human mental life, selfawareness provides a pointer towards the truth of psychological substance dualism. In fact, it can be argued that he may have cast it in an even more prominent role as an indispensable foundation for a coherent dualism. 39

The third namat. of the second part of the Ishārāt (119 ff.), on the soul, begins with the flying man. See Chapter 4.2, 80.

chapter 3

Self-awareness as existence: Avicenna on the individuality of an incorporeal substance


The problem of incorporeal individuality

Avicenna grounds his demonstration of psychological substance dualism on a peculiar feature of the human capacity for intellection.1 All objects of intellection, insofar as they are actually understood, are indivisible. Although one can analyse the concept of human being, for instance, into its generic and differential constituents (‘animal’ and ‘rational’, respectively), when the concept is actually understood, the constituents must both be actual in a single undivided act of intellection. Moreover, the analysis cannot be pursued infinitely for it will ultimately come across simple intelligibles, such as ‘thing’ or ‘existent’, which can no longer be analysed or defined.2 On the other hand, all corporeal entities are infinitely divisible. Thus, if a corporeal organ were the substrate of the intellectual soul, the soul would be divisible due to the divisibility of its substrate. This in turn would entail the infinite divisibility of the object of intellection that inheres in the soul at the moment of actual intellection, which has already been argued to be impossible. As a result, insofar as we are capable of intellection, we cannot be divisible, and hence are not corporeal.3


2 3

Avicenna also refers to self-awareness after this demonstration (see Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.2, 216–218 Rahman), when he argues that our awareness of perceiving (Aristotle’s perception of perception in De an. III.2, 425b11–26) cannot be due to the corporeal organs of perception but requires an incorporeal basis. Importantly, though, this proof is based not on the evidential force of self-awareness, but on the impossibility of finding the kind of immediate self-relation, which awareness of perceiving requires, in anything corporeal. See Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt I.5.2–21, 23–27. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.2, 211–216 Rahman; cf. Ishārāt, 130. Earlier on (209–211) Avicenna also considers the suggestion that the body in which the intelligible inheres is an unextended and therefore indivisible point. This is impossible because as a limit of a line or a magnitude the point is accidentally extended, hence divisible, and will transfer this accidental divisibility to the intelligible. The point’s mindindependent existence as such (that is, without anything extended the limit of which it would designate) is refuted by means of familiar arguments against atomism.



Self-awareness as existence

Avicenna’s dualism is thus ultimately based on the traditional view that intellectuality entails incorporeality.4 But since he argues for a strong unity of the soul despite the multiplicity of its faculties, Avicenna thinks that incorporeality is not exclusive to an intellectual ‘part’ of the human being. On the contrary, each of us is incorporeal even when considered as a soul, that is, as the agent of acts that take place in the body. Since we have experience of remaining the same entity when we think intellectually and when we perceive, desire or move our bodies, Avicenna concludes that the soul behind all these acts is one, and differentiated only by means of its faculties or capacities.5 With the exception of intellection, the soul’s use of its faculties of course does take place by means of respective corporeal organs, and so the acts are corporeal, but since the agent remains one and the same from one act to another, and since this one agent is capable of intellection, it must be incorporeal. Problems arise when this dualistic concept of the soul is connected to the Aristotelian metaphysical framework that Avicenna subscribes to.6 As a substance dualist concerning human beings, Avicenna departs from a straightforward interpretation of hylomorphic psychology in which the soul is simply the form of the body; although the soul still retains a formal function in relation to its body, it is not a form strictly speaking, since it does not inhere in the matter of the body. This departure from orthodox Aristotelian doctrine is decisive, for it leads to a dilemma concerning the individuation (tashakhkhus.) of human beings. The commonplace Aristotelian account of individuation explains individuality by means of matter: matter individuates forms as ostensible things, as unique examples of primary substances each of which is traditionally referred to as ‘a this’, tode ti. In other words, the primitively determined spatiotemporal coordinates afforded by matter are the ultimate guarantee of the individuality of each individual entity, since, unlike all the entity’s other properties considered in themselves, those co-ordinates are exclusive to it in a primitive sense: no two entities can reside in the same place at a single given moment of time. But in the case of immaterial substances Avicenna cannot rely on matter to account for their individuality. Avicenna tackles the problem headlong in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, saying that the emergence of a suitable body is a necessary condition for the 4

5 6

See Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt VIII.6.6–7, 284–285. This view is explicitly formulated already in Ar. De an. III.4. For a lucid discussion of the view in the Ishārāt and the commentaries by Rāzī and T.ūsī, see now Adamson 2011a. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 253–254 Rahman. The following reconstruction of the problem is based on Black 2012.

The problem of incorporeal individuality


emergence of an individual soul. Thus, the soul’s individuality requires a relation to a body proper to it and it alone. It is thus sound that the soul comes to be as corporeal matter suited to be used by it comes to be, and the body that has come to be is its instrument and governed by it. In the substance of the soul that has come to be with a body – that body necessitates its coming to be from the first principles – there is a configuration of natural tendency to be preoccupied with and use [that body], to be concerned about its states and to be attracted to it, which is proper to [the soul] and turns it away from all other bodies. Thus there is no doubt that when [the soul] exists as individuated (mutashakhkhis.a), the principle of its individuation (tashakhkhus.ihā) attaches to it something from the configurations that designates it as an individual (min al-hay’āti mā tuta‘ayyanu bihi shakhs.an). Those configurations are necessary to make [the soul] proper to that body, and they are in accordance with the mutual suitability of one to the other, even if that state and that accordance were unknown to us.7

Thus, human individuals first occur at the occurrence of suitable bodies. When the embryo has developed into a foetus as part of the mother’s body governed by the mother’s soul, and the foetus in turn has reached a stage in which it is ‘a natural organic body which performs [or is capable of performing] the acts of life’, a respective soul to govern it and it alone emerges from the active intellect. But having said all this, Avicenna immediately goes on to consider the question of the body’s corruption. Given that the individuality of the soul is due to its body, does the soul cease to exist as an individual entity when the body is corrupted? In other words, since the soul’s individuality requires a relation to a body proper to it, and since any relation will cease to prevail when one of its relata ceases to exist, how can Avicenna account for the existence of the human soul post mortem? A denial of the afterlife would be problematic not only for religious reasons, but also on systematic grounds, for given that matter is the precondition for corruption, and that the soul is only relationally connected to its body, it is hard to see how the immaterial soul could cease to exist. To avoid this problem, Avicenna suggests that the relation to the body has to be understood as a property of the soul, as a temporally qualifiable ‘being-related-tothe-body’ that can be the soul’s property whether or not any body actually exists: ‘We say that after the separation of souls from bodies, there is no doubt that every single soul will have existed (takūna qad wujidat) as a dhāt made singular by the difference of the matters which were (kānat), by the 7

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, 224–225 Rahman.


Self-awareness as existence

difference of the times of their coming to be, and by the difference of their configurations in accordance with their different bodies.’8 As a property of the soul, the relation to the body can receive different temporal qualifications, and so, although ultimately grounded upon the existence of a body for the soul at a determined moment in time, that property can belong to the soul at any subsequent moment of time, even when the body no longer exists. Thus, the soul will be individuated after the corruption of the body by its having once been related to that particular body at a particular time. What Avicenna thereby ends up with is a theory of individuation by means of a special property or a bundle of properties that are unique to the immaterial entity that they individuate. In fact, in the immediately following section of our chapter he is quick to list a set of such properties: After [the soul] has been individuated as singular, it and another, numerically [different] soul cannot be one dhāt – we have repeated the discussion on the impossibility of this in a number of places. But we are certain that [1] the soul can, when it comes to be with the coming to be of a temperament, afterwards come to have a configuration in rational actions and rational passions that as a whole are distinct from the corresponding configuration it would have in another, as two temperaments in two bodies are distinct; that [2] the acquired configuration, which is called an intellect in act, is also to a certain degree something by which [the soul] is distinguished from another soul; and that [3] an awareness of its particular self (shu‘ūrun bi dhātihā al-juz’īya) occurs to [the soul], and that awareness is also a certain configuration in it which is proper to it and to no other. It may be the case that [4] a proper configuration also comes to be in it with respect to bodily faculties. That configuration is connected to moral configurations or is the same as them. There [may] also be [5] other properties unknown to us that are appended to souls when they come to be and afterwards, just as similar [properties] are appended to individuals of corporeal species so that [the individuals] are distinguished by them for as long as they remain; similarly souls are distinguished by their properties in them, whether the bodies are there or not, whether we know those states or not, or know [only] some of them.9

Avicenna mentions five types of individuating properties. First we have a set of ‘rational actions and . . . passions’, which seems to refer to immaterial character traits – or in modern parlance, psychological properties – that correspond with the unique humoral temperament of the soul’s erstwhile 8

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, 225–226 Rahman; emphases added.


Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, Rahman 226–227.

The problem of incorporeal individuality


body.10 These properties are based on the Galenic theory of temperaments, according to which the relations of domination between the bodily humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – cause corresponding emotional dispositions in the soul; for instance, a predominance of black bile tends to make a person melancholic in character. Given Avicenna’s refutation of atomism, the relative amounts of the humours in a given temperamental whole allow for an infinity of variations, and so the temperamental basis alone provides a means of distinguishing an infinite number of souls from each other.11 Second, each human soul will have developed its intellect to an extent particular to it, and thereby reached a degree of cognitive perfection different from that of other souls; each of us has more or less knowledge, and knowledge about different things than our peers. Our cognitive perfection, although it may seem to be independent from the body, also requires the body in its coming to be, for, as we have already mentioned, Avicenna holds that we acquire knowledge by means of learning and abstraction through perceptual data. Third, Avicenna mentions the awareness each person has of her- or himself. We will return to this ‘configuration’ in a moment; suffice it to say at this point, however, that, as we learned from the flying man, Avicenna thinks that self-awareness, unlike the other properties enumerated here, is at least possibly independent from the body. Let us also point out that, unlike the other possible factors of individuation, self-awareness is not qualified by any verbal sign of hesitation (such as ‘can’, ‘to a certain degree’ or ‘it may be the case’). Fourth, each of us has particular character traits that we have acquired through habituation. One person may have been disposed to regular physical hardship from an early age, having thus developed a character of strong endurance, whereas another person may have been similarly subjected to a steady diet of sweetmeats and will subsequently find a life devoid of such substances difficult to bear. Avicenna refers to these character traits as ‘moral configurations’ or configurations related to character (al-hay’ātu al-khalqīya), and it seems quite clear that they derive from the account of dispositions (Gr. hexeis, Ar. akhlāq) in the Nicomachean Ethics.12 Fifth and last, 10

11 12

For an extended discussion of the role of the humoral temperament in the individuation and origination of the immaterial human substance, as well as of the general emanationist context, see Marmura 2008, especially 123–130. For Avicenna’s refutation of atomism, see Shifā’: al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī III.5, 302–310. Concerning the infinite number of souls in Avicenna, cf. Marmura 1960, 232–235. For a general account, see Ar. NE II.1. Avicenna discusses habituation as a psychological phenomenon in the context of the faculty of estimation (see Shifā’: Fī al-nafs IV.3, 184–185 Rahman; for discussion, cf. Kaukua 2007, 51–52). Thus, even though the habits themselves are in the immaterial soul, their coming to be requires corporeal faculties.


Self-awareness as existence

Avicenna mentions the possibility of other individuating properties that we may not be aware of. Since each body has a practically innumerable variety of properties, there may be some that we will miss; if that is possible, the same may be true of the soul’s properties. Presumably, however, this fifth group will be ontologically similar to the others, in that the factors in it are also properties of the soul somehow caused by its relation to the body. The important point here is that although they are genetically based on the body, all of these properties are properties of the soul, and as properties of an immaterial entity they are immaterial as well. Avicenna therefore seems to suggest a version of what contemporary metaphysicians call a bundle theory to explain the individuality of the immaterial human substance. In this account, no single property alone is expected to provide the foundation for human individuality, but the properties due to the soul’s relation to its body are collectively thought to be de facto unique to the soul, and thus capable of singling it out from among its kin. Now, this leap from de facto uniqueness to individuation in principle entails a well-rehearsed problem: if no single immaterial property is capable of conveying individuality to the subject whose property it is, why should we assume that a collection of such properties will acquire that capacity from the mere conjunction of the properties? What is more, Avicenna himself makes the very point explicit in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12:13 The individual (al-shakhs.) becomes an individual when accidental properties (khawās..s), both concomitant and not concomitant, are conjoined with the nature of the species, and designated matter is assigned to them (tata‘ayyanu lahā māddatun mushārun ilayhā).14 It is impossible for the intelligible properties, however many they are, to be conjoined to the species without an ultimate reference to an individuated meaning, so that the individual thereby subsists in the intellect. For if you said ‘Zayd is the tall one, the writer, the handsome one’, and so forth for as many descriptions as you wish, Zayd’s individuality would not be assigned for you in the intellect. Rather, the meaning, which is put together from the collection of all that, can belong to more than one, but it is made concrete (yu‘ayyinuhu) by existence and by reference to an individual meaning, just as you say that he is the son of so-and-so, exists at such-and-such a time, is tall, and is a philosopher, and it then happens to be the case that no 13


The incoherence was first raised by Deborah Black (2012), who also suggests in passing that selfawareness may have played a special role in Avicenna’s account of human individuality (see also Black 2008, 73–76). The following reconstruction, however, is not based on Black’s article. Another assessment of Avicenna’s account of the individuation of human substances as being incomplete and possibly aporetic is Druart 2000, 266–267, 273. One could also read ‘designated matter is assigned to [the nature of the species]’. The nuance is inconsequential for our concerns, since in both cases the point remains that matter is required for individuation.

The problem of incorporeal individuality


one shares these attributes with him and also that you have had a previous acquaintance with the case by means of the kind of apprehension which points towards [the case] on the basis of sense perception, pointing to the very person and the very moment. Then the individuality of Zayd is ascertained for you, and this statement indicates his individuality.15

Right at the beginning of the passage, Avicenna flatly rejects the bundle theory of individuation that we have just read from the psychological section of the Shifā’. He is adamant that in addition to the conjunction of accidental properties to a specific nature – i.e. the conjunction of properties (1), (2), (4) and (5) to the dhāt of a human being – individuation requires that ‘designated matter is assigned’ to this bundle of accidental and essential properties. However, precisely that assignment is lacking when the bundle is supposed to constitute an immaterial entity. As a result, the alleged individuation turns out to be insufficiently grounded; at best we might have accidental individuality due to the de facto non-existence of another entity with exactly the same bundle of properties. But without the irreducible material basis, there is nothing to prevent the bundle from belonging to more than one soul in principle. The incongruence hinges on a close connection between intellectuality, intelligibility and immateriality. Something is an intellect for the same reason as it is intelligible: because it is abstract, either by itself or as a result of a human intellect’s act of abstraction, from matter and the features concomitant to it, such as having unique spatiotemporal co-ordinates. Furthermore, intelligibility entails potential universality; any intelligible is in principle shareable or participable (mushtarik) by more than one specifically identical individual, regardless of whether there actually are more than one, or indeed any, corresponding individuals.16 Thus, even if the bundle of the accidental properties of a given human substance did happen to constitute a complete description of a given individual entity, a Leibnizian complete individual concept if you will, they would not suffice decisively to single out that individual, since there will always remain the possibility that there is another individual exactly alike but numerically different. What is needed is a way for this set of properties to refer to an individual, and so to have an individuated or individual meaning (ma‘nā mutashakhkhas., ma‘nā shakhs.ī),17 which in the case of Zayd in our passage amounts to an ostensive 15 16 17

Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, 70. Cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.8.8–9, 188–189; and Bäck 1994, 48–50. Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.5, 26–27; cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.1.2–3, 148–149. The notion of ‘individuated meaning’ or ‘individual meaning’ is not entirely clear, and according to Black 2012, Avicenna never gives an explicit definition of the term. Black does venture to suggest, however, that individual meanings are involved in Avicenna’s account of self-awareness – a suggestion


Self-awareness as existence

reference to the embodied person. This reference enables all the other facts known about Zayd to be specific to him and him alone. One might ask, however, whether the incoherence is not dissolved if we take our cue from the existence proper to a class of immaterial individuals which Avicenna explicitly asserts, namely the celestial intellects. If they can be genuine individuals, why can we not explain the individuality of the immaterial human substances along the same lines? The problem is that the types of individuality respective to the two classes of being, human and celestial intellects, are different in kind and accountable by drastically divergent reasons. The celestial intellects are individual because each of them is the sole instantiation of its species,18 whereas human substances are multiple instantiations of the single species of humanity. Thus, although both celestial intellects and human beings are individual for causes external to their quiddities,19 these reasons are distinct: the lack of other instantiations of the species in the case of the celestial intellects, the aforementioned relation to bodies in that of humans. What is more, Avicenna explicitly states that the allegedly individual bundles of the human essence and its unique accidents cannot be understood as subspecies of human: only the human essence can constitute a species that is capable of subsisting by itself.20 This is clearly an expression of the Aristotelian belief according to which only natural kinds are substances in the strict sense, that is, entities that are capable of subsisting and enduring through the variation of their accidental attributes, and that are the subjects of definitions in the proper sense.21 Since the variation concerns precisely the sort of features that form the allegedly individuating bundle, the bundle fails to produce a new species of substance, the sole instantiation of which the individual human would be. Thus, if we look at the list of the allegedly individuating characteristics Avicenna mentions in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, we can see that the majority of them suffers from the same problem as the bundle of properties discussed in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12. If the rational actions and affections that are parallel to the humoral temperament of the soul’s body are immaterial properties, we can immediately ask the question of why they could not in principle be shared by other souls. Even if they were caused by a particular body, it

18 20 21

I will discuss in Chapter 4.3, 91–94. For the present purpose it suffices to point out that, in the case of multiple individuals of a single species, individuated meanings seem to presuppose material existence. Indeed, it is possible that Avicenna applies the term simply to mean straightforward reference to a mind-independent object. For relevant fluctuations in the meaning of ma‘nā in theories of reference in Arabic philosophy, see Eichner 2010. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.2.2, 158; VIII.6.16-17, 288. 19 Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.5, 26–27. Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, 71–72. See, for instance, Ar. Met. VII.12, 1037b27–1038a35; and cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.7.11–12, 184–185.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


would still be possible that there is another soul with precisely the same properties yet due to another body that is identical to the first in respect to its humoral temperament. In such a case, we would not have any means of distinguishing between the two souls. The soul’s moral configuration is similar to its humorally induced properties in this regard: certainly we can imagine two souls with exactly matching histories of character formation, only mediated by two spatiotemporally distinct bodies. Again, in such a case we will have no way of distinguishing between the two souls. Similar problems are faced when we consider the degree of actualization of the soul’s capacity of intellection: nothing rules out the possibility of another soul having the exact same amount of acquired knowledge. If anything, this might seem even more plausible than the possibility of two souls with exactly similar humorally induced character traits. The set of unknown attributes, whatever they may be, can be dealt with in the same way: as immaterial qualities, they are by definition potentially common to many and therefore have no power to individuate the subject whose qualities they are. In the end, the problem stands firm: without the relation to its body, which ceases to prevail at the body’s corruption, the human substance lacks a reference to designated matter and its primitively individuating spatiotemporal co-ordinates, and its individuation remains a mystery.


Self-awareness as incorporeal existence

Even if none of the body-related properties were capable of individuating the immaterial human substance, Avicenna’s list leaves us with one possible factor to consider: the soul’s ‘awareness of its particular self’ which is a configuration ‘proper to it and to no other’. The role of self-awareness in the individuation of a human being is not developed at any greater length in the psychological books of the Shifā’, but the Ta‘līqāt, a later compilation of correspondence possibly meant to be appended to the Shifā’,22 does contain an extended discussion of self-awareness which perhaps suggests a solution to the problem of individuation. Many of the points this passage gathers together are made separately, and are occasionally expanded upon, in a number of other contexts, but the way they are here composed into a single whole is unique. Moreover, the emphatic repetition, in slight variations, of the point that self-awareness is the mode of existence of the human substance is to my knowledge without parallel in the Avicennian corpus. It is also the basis on which the passage can be read as suggesting a solution 22

So Gutas 1988, 141–144, whose suggestion is corroborated by Janssens 2012.


Self-awareness as existence

to the incoherence in the Shifā’. For these reasons I will quote the passage at exceptional length. In order to see how the arguments that figure scattered in Avicenna’s other works do indeed belong together, it is important not to dissect the text into independent parts. (The lettering is added only to facilitate reference in the discussion below.) [a] Furthermore, when an instrument is attributed to something, [that thing] acquires by means of [the instrument] what it has potentially, not actually. The self’s self-awareness (shu‘ūru al-dhāti bi al-dhāti) is never23 potential but rather innate (maft.ūra) to it; the human self is an aware self (dhātu al-insāni dhātun shā‘iratun), and its awareness of itself (shu‘ūruhā bi dhātihā) is natural to it. Since that is the case, it is not acquired; and since it is not acquired, it is not by means of an instrument. [b] Self-awareness is essential for the soul (al-shu‘ūru bi al-dhāti dhātīyun li al-nafs), it is not externally acquired; it is as if when the self occurs, awareness occurs with it (wa ka annahu idhan h.as.ala al-dhātu, h.as.ala ma‘ahā al-shu‘ūr). One24 is not aware of it by means of an instrument, but one is aware of it by itself and from itself (yush‘aru bihā bi dhātihā wa min dhātihā). Its awareness of it25 is absolute awareness; I mean that there is no condition whatsoever in it and that it is constantly aware (dā’imatu al-shu‘ūr), not from time to time.26 Apprehension of the body takes place by way of a sense, and that is either by means of vision or by means of touch; thus, he who allows that knowledge of the self (al-ma‘arifatu bi al-dhāt) is from an indication to it by means of a sense has the consequence that he does not know himself (lam ya‘arif dhātahu) absolutely but knows [himself] (‘arafahā)27 when he perceives his body. Furthermore, apprehension by means of a sense requires that there is something which is known to apprehend what is sensed by means of a sense, and which is different from the sense, and it is no doubt the soul. As regards28 us being aware that we were aware of ourselves (fa ammā an nash‘ura bi annā qad sha‘arnā bi dhawātinā), it is from an act of the intellect. Self-awareness is actual for the soul (al-shu‘ūru bi al-dhāti yakūnu li al-nafsi bi al-fi‘l), so that it is constantly aware of itself (fa innahā takūna dā’imata 23


25 26 27 28

Reading qat.t.u, instead of Badawī’s faqat., in accordance with the forthcoming critical edition by Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, who has kindly bestowed upon me a manuscript version. Both readings are supported by manuscript evidence. Here and later in the sentence I read in passive (lā yush‘ar) with Mousavian instead of Badawī’s firstperson plural (lā nush‘ar), also supported by manuscript evidence. Strictly speaking, it would of course be problematic to ascribe a plural subject (‘we’) for awareness of an individual self. However, such a loose manner of speaking is understandable, and in fact Avicenna does resort to it later on in the text in places where the manuscripts are unanimous. Reading shu‘ūruhā bihā with Mousavian, instead of Badawī’s shu‘ūrunā bihā, also supported by manuscript evidence. Cf. Ta‘līqāt 79, which repeats this point almost verbatim. Reading the feminine suffix with Mousavian, instead of Badawī’s ‘arafahu, which is also supported by manuscript evidence. The difference between the readings is inconsequential. Reading fa ammā with Mousavian instead of Badawī’s fa in mā.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


al-shu‘ūri bi dhātihā). As regards awareness of the awareness (al-shu‘ūru bi alshu‘ūr), it is potential; if awareness of the awareness were actual, it would be constant and no consideration of the intellect (i‘tibāri al-‘aql) would be needed for it. [c] My apprehension of myself (idrākī li dhātī) is something constitutive to me,29 not occurring from a consideration of another thing. Thus, when I say ‘I did such and such’, I consider my apprehension of myself (idrākī li dhātī) even if I neglect my awareness of [myself] (wa in kuntu fī ghaflatin ‘an shu‘ūrī bihā); how else would I know that I did such and such, if I didn’t first consider myself (law lā annī i‘tabartu awwalan dhātī)? Thus, I have first considered my self, not its act (qad i‘tabartu awwalan dhātī, lam fi‘lahā), and I do not consider anything by means of which I would apprehend myself (lam a‘tabar shay’an adraktu bihi dhātī). Our awareness of our self is our very existence (shu‘ūrunā bi dhātinā huwa nafsu wujūdinā). When we know something, in our knowledge of our apprehension of it there is awareness of our self (fī ‘ilminā bi idrākinā lahu shu‘ūrun bi dhātinā); for we know30 that our self has apprehended it (na‘alima anna dhātanā adrakathu), and so we have first been aware of our self (fa sha‘arnā awwalan bi dhātinā). How else would we know that we have apprehended it, if we weren’t first aware of our self (sha‘arnā awwalan bi dhātinā)? What is like that is a reminder,31 not a demonstration, that the soul is aware of itself (anna al-nafsa shā‘iratun bi dhātihā). [d] Those which are primary are not actual for us,32 for otherwise there would be no need for a consideration about them. [e] Self-awareness is innate to the self, it is [the self’s] very existence (al-shu‘ūru bi al-dhāti huwa gharīzīyun li al-dhāti, wa huwa nafsu wujūdihā); so nothing external is needed by means of which to apprehend the self – rather, the self is that which apprehends itself (fa lā yuh.tāja ilā 29




Reading amrun muqawwimun lī with Mousavian, instead of Badawī’s amrun yaqūmu lī, ‘something that arises (or emerges) for me’, which incoherently supposes me to be something to which selfawareness can ‘arise’ and which therefore is separable from it. Avicenna argues for a much stronger connection between me and my self-awareness, indeed one in terms of constitution. Reading li annā na‘alima with Mousavian instead of Badawī’s lā na‘alim, which does have manuscript support. Mousavian’s reading is coherent with Avicenna’s statement elsewhere in the Ta‘līqāt (79) that, when we know something with certainty, we know that we know. While Badawī’s reading could perhaps be reconciled with that passage, more interpretative work is required, and therefore Mousavian’s reading appears more probable. For the connection between epistemic certainty and self-awareness in Avicenna, see Black 2008, 76–81. Reading tanbīh with Mousavian instead of Badawī’s bayyanatun, which does have manuscript support and makes sense. However, tanbīh in the technical sense mentioned above is arguably the lectio difficilior and provides a clear reference to arguments like the flying man. Badawī omits the lanā retained by Mousavian. The point clearly concerns the explicit presence of the first principles of knowledge as objects of our consideration; cf. our discussion on the similarity between self-awareness and such first principles, and the corresponding similarities in arguments for them, in Chapter 2.1, 33–34. The point is made in more explicit terms in Ta‘līqāt, 79–80.


Self-awareness as existence shay’in min khārijin tudraku bihi al-dhātu, bal al-dhātu hiya al-latī tudriku dhātahā).33 Thus, it is not sound for it to exist without there being awareness of it (takūna mawjūdatan ghayra mash‘ūrin bihā) given that what is aware of it is its very self (yakūna al-shā‘iru bihā huwa nafsu dhātihā), not any other thing. This is not exclusive (khās..san) to human beings, rather all animals are aware of themselves (tash‘iru bi dhawātihā) in this respect.34

For the present purposes, let us reiterate the points on which the alleged solution to the problem of individuation hinges. Avicenna begins by stating in section [a] that our self-awareness is not acquired but innate. As a consequence, it is also immediate, and involves no use of cognitive instruments of any kind. This could have been inferred from the flying man as well, based as it was on bracketing all acquired knowledge and shutting out all cognitive faculties by rendering their respective instruments inoperative. In section [b], Avicenna continues by claiming that self-awareness is essential and hence necessary or concomitant to human beings, something that will always prevail given the existence of an individual human and that therefore does not permit intermission. He rephrases the point in section [c], stating that self-awareness is constitutive to all actual human beings and as such never figures as a potency the actualization of which would depend on accidental circumstantial conditions. These considerations are further developed by means of an argument against models of self-awareness based on reflection,35 which is followed by the statement, presented as if in conclusion of what has been said so far, that ‘our awareness of our self is our very existence’. This is repeated in section [e] in the form of a summary: ‘awareness of the self . . . is its very existence’. The obvious outcome is that, instead of a human property, self-awareness constitutes human existence. It is the mode in which individual immaterial human substances exist just as materiality is the mode in which individual human bodies exist. If we read this as an attempted solution to the incoherence in the Shifā’, the point is that just as the spatiotemporal co-ordinates make material existence the existence of individual things, self-awareness renders immaterial existence individual. As we recall, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3 listed selfawareness as merely one of the five types of attributes of the immaterial human substance, a constituent among others of a bundle of properties which as a whole were argued to individuate the immaterial human 33

34 35

I read in passive (lā yuh.tāja, tudraku, tudriku) with Mousavian instead of Badawī’s first-person plural (lā nuh.tāja, nudriku, nudriku), which also has manuscript support and would make sense as a loose manner of expression. Ta‘līqāt, 160–161. The argument resurfaces in the Ishārāt and will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4.1, 72–75.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


substance, but which on closer analysis, and in light of Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, seemed unfit for the task. In the present passage, self-awareness is promoted to a unique constitutive status: as the existence of an individual human being it is the determining factor in that human being’s individuation. To put it another way, instead of one of the many attributes of the human substance, Avicenna now presents it as the substrate of all subsequent attributes. This is entailed by the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness in section [c]. Let us approach this idea by way of an example. Suppose that a colleague enters my office with a lunch proposal. Caught in the act of contemplating, I decline the offer, uttering ‘I am thinking’ as an excuse. Now, the emphasis here is obviously on ‘thinking’, which expresses my reason for declining, and not on ‘I’, which specifies myself as the agent entertaining a line of thought. Yet in order for the thinking to be given in the relevant sense in the first place, that is as an act I can attribute to myself, I must first be aware of myself as something concrete to which I can attribute the act. This prior self-awareness is completely independent of whether or not I ever pay specific attention to it. As a primitive constituent of any individual human being, self-awareness is the basis which enables us to attribute anything to ourselves as exclusive to a certain individual. This act of thinking is mine, even if another individual were thinking an exactly similar thought elsewhere, because it is an attribute of my self-awareness. Thus, the metaphysical role of self-awareness is similar to that of the spatiotemporal co-ordinates of the volume of matter which constitutes a material individual. In other words, self-awareness is the existence of an individual soul in precisely the same sense as corporeality, with the entailed spatiotemporal coordinates, is the existence of an individual body. Avicenna does not spell out why he believes that self-awareness can be cast in this important explanatory role. However, it is perhaps plausible to assume that this is due to its unique phenomenological features. Each human being’s awareness of herself is exclusive to her and cannot be shared by anyone or anything else; it is something to which only that individual has access.36 But quite apart from whether the reconstructed solution is 36

If this is the basis of the reconstructed solution, then its plausibility hinges on accepting Avicenna’s description of self-awareness. Minimally, this includes the claim that self-awareness is primitive and irreducible to more basic psychological or epistemic constituents. Self-awareness does not arise from the cognition of a special object, for as Avicenna states in the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness, recognition of oneself in an object requires prior familiarity with oneself. However, while citing this passage, Black 2012 does reconstruct Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness as an awareness of the individual intention of Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12. I will revisit this suggestion in Chapter 4.3, 91–94.


Self-awareness as existence

plausible in systematic terms, it remains a fact that neither Avicenna nor any of his immediate interlocutors ever explicitly recognize the described incoherence, nor do they present self-awareness as its solution. However, this does not necessarily mean that the reconstruction is anachronistic, for a similar appeal to self-awarenesss as a solution to the problem of individuation is recognized as Avicennian a century and a half later by the critical commentator Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī.37 Moreover, the connection between individuation and self-awareness is retained in Mullā S·adrā’s discussion of mental existence.38 In the end, however, it must be admitted that we have no conclusive evidence for treating the question as Avicenna’s own, let alone reading the passage in the Ta‘līqāt as expressly designed for its solution. Moreover, regardless of the plausibility of this reading, it is problematized by the context in which the passage is embedded, a complex patchwork of alternating sections on theology and psychology or epistemology. Our present knowledge of the textual history and the principles of organization of the Ta‘līqāt allows us no definite assessment of the text, but this uncertainty notwithstanding, the theological relevance of the discourse on self-awareness is relatively straightforward.39 Avicenna’s description of the characteristics of human self-awareness takes place in the wake of an account of God’s knowledge of Himself and His creation. In a manner familiar from the Shifā’, he first claims that God’s knowledge entails knowledge of the created world because He knows Himself as its maker. In fact, creation primarily exists in being understood by God. In a reformulation of the Neoplatonic framework of emanation and return, Avicenna then says that God is both the origin and the end of all through His understanding of Himself as the origin and as absolute good, worthy of the pursuit of all things. The usual denial of any kind of passivity, receptivity and impression in God’s knowledge are added in order to distinguish His knowledge from the sort of cognition His creatures may be capable of. Avicenna thereby asserts that, in the case of God, the subject and object of knowledge are one, something he has vehemently denied elsewhere of all other cognitive subjects.40 This is based on the theological tenet that all of God’s attributes, including His knowing Himself as the origin and the good as well as the entailed knowledge of the created world, are identical to His essence or His self (dhāt).41 37 39 40

Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.402–403. See Chapter 7.2, 185–187. 38 See Chapter 7.2, 187–188. Moreover, another similar foray into self-awareness in the Ta‘līqāt (78–80) figures in a similar context. Cf. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman. 41 Ta‘līqāt, 158–160.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


This section of the Ta‘līqāt is very close to the account of God’s knowledge in Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt VIII.6–7, but immediately thereafter Avicenna suddenly moves to consider human cognition insofar as it is similar to God’s knowledge of Himself. If this order of procedure is originally Avicennian and not a result of a later recension, it can be understood as an attempt to elucidate the identity of the different attributes of God with His self on the one hand, and the identity of intellection, its subject and its object on the other. For a devout sceptic could ask how we can even begin to understand God’s knowledge if it, due to its absolute unity, is fundamentally different from our own, the only phenomenon we can use as a starting point in any discussion of knowledge. Thus, it would be in order to make his realist description of God’s knowledge more palatable to the sceptical reader that Avicenna suggests that, notwithstanding the multiplicity inherent in human intellection, there is a certain qualified sense in which we can speak of the unity or identity of what knows and what is known in it as well. This is stated right before section [a] in a paraphrase of the Aristotelian claim that they share one and the same actuality. My being an intellect in act (my actual ‘aqlīya) amounts to the actual existence of an intellectual form for me, and this existence is nothing other than the form’s being actually understood (its actual ma‘qūlīya) by me.42 Although the intelligible form remains distinct from the intellectual subject that understands it because of their metaphysical classification under opposing categories – the form is an accident which inheres in the intellectual substance – they nevertheless share in the actuality of intellection. Having thus qualified his denial of the unity of subject and object in human cognition, Avicenna moves on in our passage to consider an aspect of the human intellect that he seems to think shows a much greater similarity to God’s self-intellection. More than anything else we have immediate access to, human self-awareness approaches the absolute identity between the subject and the object of cognition that is characteristic of God’s knowledge. From this perspective, it would be in order to make sense of this attribute of God that our passage contrasts self-awareness so diligently with other types of cognition, which take place either by means of a given intellectual object or, in the case of perception and imagination, by way of corporeal instruments. Similarly, if the context is genuinely Avicenna’s, it seems natural to assume that Avicenna dwells at such length on the identity of our self-awareness and our existence precisely in order to 42

Ta‘līqāt, 160.


Self-awareness as existence

elucidate the parallel identity between God’s knowledge and His self.43 Avicenna’s intention would not be unlike that of Augustine in De trinitate, that is, ‘to find in the soul of man [the] image of the Creator’,44 or to come to understand something that is infinitely above us by means of the similarities to it that we can find in ourselves. In the end, we have to admit that neither of the two discussions to which we have embedded Avicenna’s excursion on self-awareness is unequivocally the correct context for it. Reading the passage in light of the psychological discussion concerning the individuality of the human substance is made problematic by Avicenna’s complete silence about the connection, whereas the haphazard organization of the Ta‘līqāt throws doubt on the putative connection to the theological discussion of God’s knowledge. However, if the passage and its blunt identification between human self-awareness and human existence belongs to either of the two contexts, this will be due to one and the same idea, that is, that self-awareness is the sort of existence proper to an immaterial, hence intellectual, substance. This in turn suggests that despite the novelty of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness, his starting point is the result of three interconnected ideas, all of which are perfectly traditional as such. The first of these ideas is that immateriality is equivalent to intellectuality. In other words, if something is an immaterial entity, it is by the same token an intellect, and vice versa. The second idea verges on the tautological: if something is an intellect, its actual existence amounts to intellection. Finally, the third idea expresses a particular concept of intellection: intellection always amounts to self-intellection because it consists of an identity or unity of some sort between the subject and the object of intellection. Avicenna subscribes to this set of ideas explicitly, if not without certain qualifications, both in the Shifā’ and in the Ishārāt. For a lucid example, consider the following description of God as the paradigmatic intellect: The First is understood by [Him]self and subsists [by Himself] (al-awwalu ma‘qūlu al-dhāti qā’imuhā).45 Thus, He subsists free from attachments, obligations, matters and other such [things] which would bring the self to


44 45

In this regard, the Ta‘līqāt is not entirely unique in Avicenna’s oeuvre; cf. the discussion of the relation between the theological and psychological parts of the Shifā’ and the Ishārāt in Adamson 2011a. Interestingly, Suhrawardī resorts to a similar strategy in the Talwīh.āt and al-Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt; see Chapter 6.1. Aug. De trin. XIV.4.6. This is a difficult sentence. I read it as consisting of two parallel idāfas, that is, ma‘qūlu al-dhāti (wa) ˙ qā’imu al-dhāt.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


be by means of an additional state. And you know that what is judged such understands itself and is understood by itself.46

God’s intelligibility is equivalent with His immateriality, His freedom from attachments and deficiencies that are due to matter, and as such He is known by definition to understand Himself and be understood by Himself. In other words, God’s intellectuality amounts to a constant act of selfintellection. Avicenna’s introduction of the discussion of human self-awareness in a context dealing with God’s intellectuality strongly suggests that he approaches the phenomenon from the point of view of the traditional theory of the intellect. Because the entity that functions as a soul in relation to the human body is an immaterial substance independent of its relation to the body, its existence in itself must be intellectual. If it is intellectual, it must be intellectually aware of itself. In this regard, the human substance is like any other intellect.47 However, there is an important difference between human and divine intellection which may have motivated Avicenna to explain the unity of God’s intellection at such great length. God’s knowledge of Himself merges with His knowledge of His creation, whereas we are always emphatically aware of ourselves in the face of an other, and this introduces a persistent structural duality to our cognition. In Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, Avicenna vehemently denies the theory of cognitive unity in the case of human intellection, attributing it to Porphyry who ‘was bent to speak in imaginative, poetic and mystical (s.ūfīya) expressions which restricted both himself and others to imagination’. The argument annexed to the denial is admirably lucid. Suppose that I understand catness now at time t1 but horseness a moment later at time t2. According to the theory of cognitive unity, at t1 I am identical to catness but at t2 identical to horseness, and so, given the obvious difference between catness and horseness, we cannot speak of any me that endures in knowing both at the successive moments. This, however, violates our intuition that we can, in some 46 47

Ishārāt IV, 146. Cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt VIII.66–8, 284–285. For discussion, see Sebti 2000, 100–103; Adamson 2011a; and cf. Pines 1954, 36–39. The fact that Avicenna occasionally claims that all animals are aware of themselves in the same manner he has just described human beings to be is of course problematic. I have argued elsewhere (Kaukua and Kukkonen 2007; cf. López-Farjeat 2012) that, on systematic grounds at least, Avicenna’s theory of animal self-awareness (which he is hesitant about; for passages conflicting with the present one, see Mubāh.athāt 305, 184 Badawī [VI.656–657, 221 Bīdārfar]; 358, 199 Badawī [VI.504–505, 176 Bīdārfar]; and most importantly Ta‘līqāt, 79) should be different from his theory of human selfawareness. In the end, I believe that Avicenna failed to develop a fully coherent theory of animal selfawareness, or one capable of reconciling his dualism with intuitions concerning animal psychology that he seems to have shared with his contemporaries.


Self-awareness as existence

sufficiently robust sense, intellectually apprehend different things at different times, that I who am thinking about horseness now am the very person who was thinking about catness a moment ago.48 To save this intuition, we have to postulate our selves to endure unchanged from t1 to t2, and therefore reject the theory of cognitive unity. Instead, we should opt for a theory of intellection in which the intelligible forms actually understood are conceived as accidents inhering in the human intellect, separable from it not merely in analysis but also in reality.49 While this may be compatible with a modest version of the theory of cognitive unity, according to which the intellect and its object share in a single act of intellection, such a unity will be considerably weaker than that in the divine intellect. As a result, also our means of describing God’s single act of intellection of Himself and His creation are severely inadequate to render the unity as anything other than a conjunction of two analytically distinct constituents, that is, God’s knowledge of Himself on the one hand, and His knowledge of His creation on the other. But even though our capacity of intellection will not take us very far in understanding God’s synonymous act, there is one feature in our knowledge that is capable of giving us a more concrete idea of the unity in God’s knowledge. It is for this reason that Avicenna emphasizes the immediacy and the primitive nature of our self-awareness, the sole cognitive phenomenon in us that is capable of resisting the necessity of a real distinction between subject and object. But even if Avicenna took his cue from the tradition in applying human self-awareness to account for our individual existence and to make sense of God’s knowledge of Himself, his emphasis on the immediacy of selfawareness forced him to depart from the traditional ground. This is because none of the available modes of cognition can be used to explain such a primitive type of awareness. If nothing is allowed to mediate between the human subject and her awareness of herself, self-awareness has to be conceived of in a manner different from both perception and intellection. Both types of cognition take place when what is known is impressed or inheres in the knowing substance or its cognitive organs. Depending on the type of cognition, the known object can be of three different types. It can be a proper or a common sensible form, such as colour, sound, motion, shape and so forth, in which case it will be impressed in the corresponding 48


The argument thus implicitly relies on a feature of our self-awareness, which is explicitly brought forth in an argument from personal identity in Mubāh.athāt VI.403, 147 Bīdārfar; cf. 453, 226 Badawī; see Chapter 4.1, 75–79. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman.

Self-awareness as incorporeal existence


sense organ, and by means of that in the faculty of common sense, as a material property that corresponds to an extramental object. It can be what Avicenna calls meaning (ma‘nā), such as the enmity a sheep apprehends in a wolf. This is an object proper to the faculty of estimation (wahm), and although not sensible as such, it is conveyed in what is sensed. Thus, even if it no longer has the sensible properties that are immediately due to matter, it does reside in what is sensed, and since it also inheres in the material organ proper to estimation, it remains material.50 Finally, the object can be intellectual, in which case it is received by the soul from the active intellect without any corporeal faculty, although the soul must have been prepared for this reception by a process of abstraction which it performs by means of corporeal faculties.51 But as we have just seen, although the intellectual form is immaterial, it remains distinct from the intellect in which it inheres as an accidental attribute really separate from it. Since this distinction between subject and attribute is thus common to all these types of cognition, the form known is in each case apprehended as an object, which I conceive to be different from myself and which therefore cannot function as the medium of self-awareness. Thus, self-awareness must be a very peculiar type of cognition. To my knowledge, Avicenna never explicitly attributes a special cognitive category to it, although something along such lines is hinted at in a hesitant remark he makes in the Mubāh.athāt: ‘It may be that “intellection” [in the sense of that] which grasps intelligibles is not applicable to the purity of complete self-awareness but comes after that. That is worth thinking about.’52 In any case, although Avicenna’s thesis of self-awareness as the mode of existence proper to the immaterial human substance is based on the traditional equivalence between immateriality and intellection on the one hand, and the equally traditional concept of intellection as self-intellection on the other, he is landed with the task of conceiving human self-awareness in a manner distinct from commonplace intellection. Avicenna never sets out to fulfil this task in a systematic fashion; there are no chapters ‘On selfawareness’ in any of his psychological summae. However, I claim that if we gather together the frequent, albeit somewhat scattered, remarks he makes on the phenomenon, we can reconstruct a coherent concept of self-awareness that is able to figure in all contexts of its application. 50 51 52

For a fuller classification of the cognitive faculties and objects of the sensitive soul, see above Chapter 1.2, 25–27. For the process of abstraction, see above Chapter 1.2, 27–29. Mubāh.athāt 373, 209 Badawī (cf. V.288, 119 Bīdārfar, and VI.886, 316 Bīdārfar); see also 371, 208 Badawī (V.278–281, 117–118 Bīdārfar).

chapter 4

In the first person: Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness reconstructed

The passages that we’ve considered so far set two rather stringent conditions for Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. The first of these is due to the blunt claim of identity between self-awareness and our existence. It seems intuitively plausible that our existence is continuous in time, not a series of discrete episodes punctuated by periods of non-existence. If Avicenna wants to save this intuition, the phenomenon his concept of self-awareness picks out must also be continuous, that is, he must speak of self-awareness in a sense that allows no lapses into a state lacking it. One could of course entertain the possibility that he sets out to deny and argue against the intuition of the continuity of our existence, showing that as a matter of fact we are intermittent entities and our intuition amounts to little more than prejudice. Such a denial, however, is nowhere to be found, and this for good reason too, since it is manifestly clear that Avicenna opts for the first strategy, fully aware of the condition. The above passage from the Ta‘līqāt explicitly states that the self ‘is constantly aware, not from time to time’, and the reminder that initiates the discussion of the human soul in the Ishārāt addresses the issue with more concrete examples. In connection with the flying man, Avicenna there brings up the cases of a sleeping and an intoxicated person whom he clearly considers to embody states of which we would find it natural to deny any kind of awareness, a fortiori explicit self-awareness. The examples are introduced only to argue that selfawareness in the sense he speaks about it is present in them as well.1 This provides explicit support for the view that Avicenna was fully aware of the arguably problematic consequences of the equivocation between human self-awareness and the existence of the immaterial human substance.2

1 2

Ishārāt, namat. 3, 119. A related passage in the Mubāh.athāt (III.66–72, 61–62 Bīdārfar; 380–381, 210 Badawī) suggests that these counterexamples may have been introduced by Abū al-Qāsim al-Kirmānī in a critical series of


In the first person


The second condition is due to the flying man. In the above I suggested that the argument hinges on something anyone performing the thought experiment should be able to find in her own experience after bracketing all other constituents of the experience in the required manner. I argued at length that the remaining constituent is self-awareness, in a sense that remained to be determined. However, it was sufficiently clear at that stage that, in order for his argument to work, Avicenna must deal with a perfectly commonplace type of self-awareness, nothing extraordinary or exclusive to special states of mind, although it may well be something we do not often pay attention to and so must be aroused to notice by means of a reminder such as the flying man. When these two conditions are brought together, it becomes clear that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness should refer to a phenomenon that is (1) constant and (2) experientially given. This is obviously a rather strong requirement. In any case it immediately rules out any kind of reflective selfawareness such as your explicit consideration of the fact that you are now reading this sentence. Although reflective self-awareness is experientially given in the full sense of the word and thereby fulfils condition (2), it is an intermittent and occasional state and therefore fails to fulfil condition (1). Part of the experience of reflection is precisely coming to reflect upon oneself, which entails that the reflection was preceded by a state in which one did not pay reflective attention to oneself. Moreover, reflection requires the introspective use of one’s cognitive faculties, which in turn involves an object (the prior state) that is acted upon, and is often prompted by peculiarities of the situation one finds oneself in. More complex selfrelations, such as those that occur when one reflects on one’s personal identity and its constituents (am I primarily a present father or an aspiring academic?), are ruled out a fortiori, since they are evidently founded upon the simpler type of reflection. Once again, Avicenna is fully aware of the stringency of his situation. This is evidenced by his distinction of self-awareness from reflective awareness that he calls awareness of awareness (al-shu‘ūru bi al-shu‘ūr), adding that the latter is not constant but instead requires ‘consideration of the intellect’ which is by nature an event with a rather narrow temporal scope. Moreover, in the argument against models of self-awareness based on reflection, which we will consider in greater detail in a moment, Avicenna questions directed at the flying man. However, the provenance of the examples depends on the dating of the Ishārāt, which is a matter of controversy (see Gutas 1988, 140–141; Michot 1997, 153–163; and Reisman 2002, 215–219, 222–224).


In the first person

states that reflective awareness of oneself depends for its possibility on the more fundamental type of self-awareness. How likely is it then that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness is a coherent one in the first place? Before delving into hasty assessments of this question, let us attempt to reconstruct a more fully fledged version of the concept by means of three discussions in which the underlying phenomenon figures in a prominent role. Despite the occasional use of different vocabulary, these discussions are explicitly related to the texts on selfawareness we have already considered and can therefore be legitimately used to make sense of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness.3 Once we have fleshed out a reconstruction of the concept, we can assess it against the two conditions.

4.1 Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality Argument from the unity of experience In a pioneering study from 1974, Ben Lazare Mijuskovic charted the outlines of the modern history of a particular argument which, following Kant, he called the ‘Achilles’ of rationalist psychology (referring both to the invincibility of and an inherent weakness, the notorious heel, in the argument) and which proceeds from the evident unity of our experience to the simplicity of the soul that is its subject.4 Very briefly, the argument generally sets off from two premises: (1) that our experience is in fact a unified whole of multiple constituents (such as data due to the five external senses, various desires, and acts of intellection, in a perfectly commonplace case) and (2) that such a unified whole must be due to a single subject that is one in itself, neither divided nor divisible into distinct parts. From these it is concluded (3) that the human soul responsible for the experience is one.5 As is well known, Avicenna subscribes to the argument and in fact uses a broad version of it to argue onwards, by means of the further premise (4) that all corporeal things are divisible into distinct parts, to the conclusion (5) that the soul is incorporeal.6 This version of the argument can be found 3

4 5 6

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, the very chapter from which we draw the discussion of the argument from unity, presents a version of the flying man. A brief version of the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness is featured in the passage from the Ta‘līqāt discussed above. It is also brought to bear in a defence of the flying man in Mubāh.athāt III.64, 60 Bīdārfar; 370, 207 Badawī. See Mijuskovic 1974. For a recent attempt at filling some of the gaps in Mijuskovic’s story, as well as a history of the argument prior to the Cambridge Platonists, see Lennon and Stainton 2008a. For a concise exposition of various forms of the argument, see Lennon and Stainton 2008b. For a brief discussion of the argument as presented in Najāt II.7, 228–230, see Lagerlund 2008, 78–80.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


in its most extended form in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, to which we will now turn. Our primary interest, however, is not in the argument itself, but in the peculiar role self-awareness plays in Avicenna’s rendering of it. The unity of our experience is a particularly pressing concern for Avicenna, whose psychology is founded on the idea of distinct faculties, capacities or powers. As he states his method in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, he proceeds by postulating a corresponding faculty whenever he can determine a discrete psychic act.7 The faculties, their respective acts, and the corresponding objects are firmly separate from each other, so that no two faculties can share an object. Thus, the act and object of desire or the appetitive faculty are different from the act and object of anger or the irascible faculty, and by the same token both are to be separated from the respective acts and objects of the external and internal senses. Avicenna insists on this methodological basis in the very context in which he presents the argument from unity.8 Yet the stringent criteria of distinction inherent in Avicenna’s faculty psychology seem to be at odds with common experience. First of all, as Avicenna points out, the faculties that were supposed to be distinct from each other are capable of hindering each other in their respective acts. For instance, my attempt to read a difficult text can fail because I am distracted by the smell of and desire for freshly brewed coffee. If such a thing is possible, there must be some connection between the distinct faculties. Furthermore, the act of one faculty often seems to cause an act of another, such as when I smell the freshly brewed coffee and then begin to desire a cup. Yet according to Avicenna’s criteria, sense perception and desire are not even directed to the same thing. What is smelled and what is desired are two entirely different objects, and even if both are caused by a single external thing, the two causal chains leading to the two objects are distinct from each other. Thus, there has to be another connection due to which the two objects collapse in the soul and which in this sense is above them.9 Now, the most natural answer is of course that the soul, to which all the distinct faculties belong and which is the single agent behind them all, is what provides the connection. Indeed, this is exactly how the argument runs in the Najāt: ‘Thus, it remains that that which combines is a soul by itself (nafsan bi dhātihā), or a body in the respect that it really has a soul, and so that which combines is the soul. That soul is the origin of all these 7 8 9

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 39–51 Rahman. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 252–253 Rahman. For Avicenna’s faculty psychology, see Chapter 1.2, 25–27. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 253 Rahman. Cf. Najāt II.7, 228–229.


In the first person

faculties.’10 This is a paradigmatic case of the argument from unity, based largely on received or demonstrated views concerning the soul, and with no reliance at all on any experiential data related to self-awareness. The ambiguity of the term nafs, owing to which the word can sometimes be read to mean ‘self’, is not relevant here, for the argument can be exhaustively explained by means of the distinction between soul and body. However, the same argument is dwelt upon at greater length in the Shifā’, where much of the expansion consists of experiential data designed to render the soul’s role as the unifier of the different constituents of experience intuitively more plausible. To begin with, prior to a series of arguments against the claim that the body is the unifying principle, Avicenna introduces the soul’s role as follows: Now this single thing in which these faculties are conjoined is the thing that each of us sees as himself (al-shay’u al-ladhī yarāhu kullun minnā dhātahu) so that it is sound that he says ‘since we perceived, we desired’.11

Notice that Avicenna does not straightforwardly say, as he does in the Najāt, that the unifying agent is the soul, that is, the theoretical entity postulated and studied in psychology. Instead, he starts from the commonplace experience of motivated action, which is not obscured by the awkward formulation in plural; we frequently explain our actions by pointing out a connection between a perception and a resulting emotional motivation, a connection that is here expressed by means of the causal ‘since’ (lammā). Suppose, for instance, that I see a car speeding through a crossing that a child is trying to pass. I instantly feel an upsurge of indignation, which causes my hand to make a universally understandable gesture and my mouth to emit a related verbal expression. If someone then asks me for the reason behind the outburst, it is natural for me to answer with a brief description of what I just saw, thereby expecting my anger and its expression to be readily understandable. Avicenna all but agrees: such an explanation is perfectly sound (yas.duqu). But to what is the connection between the perception and the desire ultimately due? Let us consider the constituents of the expression ‘since we perceived, we desired’. The connection expressed by the logical connective ‘since’ cannot be the basis here, since that would amount to a circle in explanation. Moreover, the connection can take many forms, even the contrary ‘we perceived but did not desire’, which clearly shows that the connection itself requires a causally determining factor. The words 10

Najāt II.7, 229.


Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 253 Rahman; emphasis added.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


‘perceived’ and ‘desired’, in turn, refer to the contents of experience at issue. Now, the contents can be said to play a role in attempts to justify the connection, insofar as they determine the success of our explanation in persuading our peers about our reasonability. I make my action understandable to others and subject it to their approval precisely by referring to such constituents of my mental states that I can expect to stand in a reasonable connection to each other because of their inherent features. However, no justification of a connection between discrete psychic acts can be a psychological explanation, for clearly there are also connections between perceptions and desires that are not justifiable in this sense; our varying idiosyncratic preferences and tendencies are cases in point. The psychological explanation, on the contrary, has to be so general that it can account for these as well. This leaves us with but one element in the sentence, the repeated pronoun ‘we’. The repetition is important because it makes explicit the fact that it is we in one and the same sense who perceive and desire, which means that the subject of perception is in a strict sense identical with the subject of desire. Thus, what Avicenna points at here by means of commonplace experience is an implicit connection, all too obvious for me to notice, let alone pay attention to: it is me that sees, becomes angry, and acts in a corresponding manner. The connection between the distinct constituents of experience cannot be based on anything else. Without an identical subject behind the two acts, perceiving and desiring, there would be no way of bringing forth the logical connective. This single subject is ‘the thing that each of us sees as himself’. Later on, in his third argument against the claim that what unites the distinct constituents of experience into a single whole is the body, Avicenna again resorts to our common experience of ourselves: [T]his body is either12 the whole body, so that if a part of it was lost, what we are aware of being us (mā nash‘uru annā nah.nu) would not exist. But that is not the case, for I would be me (akūna anā) even if I did not know that I have a hand, a leg or some other of these organs, as has been told earlier in other places.13 I suppose instead that they are my appendages, and I believe that they are instruments for me that I use in needs, and were it not for those needs, I would have no necessity for them. I would be me even if they were not there (akūnu aydan anā anā wa laysat hiya). Let us consider what we said ˙ 12


The other alternative comes only much later in the text and is the suggestion that the body connecting the constituents of experience is a specific organ instead of the body as a whole. See the next quote below. This is most likely a reference to the flying man in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 15–16 Rahman.


In the first person earlier and say: if a human being were created in a single instant, and created with his limbs separate from each other, without seeing his limbs, and it happened that he would not feel them, they would not be in contact and he would not hear a sound, [then] he would be ignorant of the existence of all his organs yet know the existence of his thatness (annīya) as one thing while being ignorant of all that. What is unknown is not the same as what is known. These our organs are in reality only like clothes which, because of the duration of their adherence to us, we have come to regard as parts of us. When we imagine ourselves (anfusanā), we do not imagine [ourselves] naked, but rather we imagine [ourselves] to have enveloping bodies (dhawāta ajsāmin kāsiyatin). The reason for this is the duration of the adherence. It is only because we are prepared to strip off and discard clothes in a way we are not prepared to do with the organs that our belief that the organs are parts of us is firmer than our belief that clothes are parts of us.14

It is important to notice that the present argument hinges on the same intuition, that is, that our selves are the nexus between the diverse constituents of our experience and action. The body cannot be the node because no body can be a self. This is for two reasons. First, Avicenna argues that what I perceive to be me will remain unchanged no matter how drastic any changes that occur to the body. Quite apart from whether we agree, this is something he considers evident. Secondly, as the brief version of the flying man shows, one can be aware of oneself without being aware of one’s body. On this basis Avicenna concludes that since what one is aware of cannot be the same as what one is not aware of, the body cannot be the self; and that since the self has earlier been claimed to connect the diverse constituents of experience, no such task is left for the body to perform. Now, as noted above in our discussion of the flying man, this argument is far from unproblematic.15 The fallacy of straightforwardly inferring a metaphysical distinction from a phenomenological distinction is particularly prominent in this case, because here the flying man hovers in a nodal point in the larger refutation of the body’s capacity to unite the distinct constituents of experience. However, judging the argument to be invalid does not force us to deem it irrelevant or uninteresting for our present concern, that is, the reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. On the contrary, the fact that the whole argument, and the flying man as its part, builds on the intuition expressed in the first passage (namely that the unifying subject in my experience is ‘the thing that each of us sees as himself’ or ‘what we are aware of being us’) shows that Avicenna perceived a crucial connection between the flying man and our intuitive familiarity with ourselves. In light 14

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 255 Rahman.


See Chapter 2.2, 37–38.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


of this context, it therefore seems natural to assume that here too selfawareness, or the experience of being a self, amounts to the diverse constituents of my experience all being mine in one and the same sense. The same point is made even more apparent in the immediately following refutation of the claim that some specific part of the body is responsible for connecting the disparate constituents of experience into a single whole. If it [i.e. the body in which the powers of the soul converge] is not the whole body but a special organ, then that organ is the thing which I believe to be me in essence, unless the meaning of that which I believe to be me is not this organ even though it cannot do without the organ. If the quiddity of the essence of that organ – i.e. of its being a heart, a brain, some other thing or a number of organs capable of this – or the quiddity of their collection is the thing of which I am aware that it is me, then it is necessary that my awareness of me is my awareness of that thing. But the thing cannot be, in one and the same sense, both what [one] is aware of and what [one] is not aware of. The case is not like that, anyway. On the contrary, when I know that I have a heart and a brain, this is through sensation, hearing and experience, not through my knowing that I am me. Thus, that organ in itself is not the thing of which I am aware that it is me in essence, but it is me accidentally. What is meant – and by means of which I know of me that I am me – and what I refer to in my saying ‘I sensed, understood, acted and combined these characteristics’ is a different thing, and that is what I call ‘I’.16

Avicenna states that the self cannot be corporeal, because there is no body that I could not be unaware of while being aware of myself as an I. Moreover, I am always aware of a body as an object of perception, and thus as something other than the subject of that perception, which the I is. I can of course subsequently identify the perceived body as myself, but in such a case the body will be me only accidentally, and as brought out in the argument against the reflection theory of self-awareness, such identification with one’s body or recognition of one’s self in one’s body presupposes prior awareness of oneself as one of the two relata of identity. This leads to the further problem, highlighted in a related passage from the Mubāh.athāt,17 that if the self were primarily given as an object in an act of a cognitive faculty, it would never be given as it is in itself. I can recognize myself in a number of vastly different objects, between which there need not be any obvious similarity that would account for the recognition in each and every case. For instance, no perceivable connection can be established between the figure I see in the mirror and the voice I hear on a recording, yet I can legitimately recognize both as appearances of myself. Even in cases of 16

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 255–256 Rahman.


Mubāh.athāt 55, 134 Badawī.


In the first person

self-intellection, the self is understood as an instance of a universal, and not as the singular entity it is in itself. Thus, if we want to hold on to the view that the self is given as it really is in itself in self-awareness, the mediation of any cognitive faculty must be rejected. However, the most telling passage for our concerns comes at the end of the present quote. Again, self-awareness, my knowledge about myself, the utter familiarity of me being me, comes explicitly to the fore in expressions of motivated action. This time Avicenna’s formulation is in an emphatic first-person singular: it is the same I that perceived, understood, acted and conjoined these different constituents of its experience. But if this is the case, the I must be separate or separable from each of its acts. Even if the self were only given in relation to its acts, it would still remain separate from and independent of any particular act precisely because it can be the self of distinct acts in one and the same sense. The sense of ‘I’ in the acts does not change, only the acts do. Avicenna makes a further interesting statement about the self in the immediately following paragraph where he finally attempts to spell out the psychological relevance of his remarks hitherto. As I have emphasized, his argument against the body being the unifying factor behind our experience has consistently relied on the claim, which he clearly believes every human agent or subject will find intuitively plausible, that each of us is aware of herself as the unifying subject of her experience. Yet Avicenna still has to argue for the move from the intuitive data concerning the self to a psychological conclusion concerning the soul: Now, if someone said that you do not know that [the I] is a soul, I would say that I always know it according to the sense in which I call it the soul. I might not know it as designated by the word ‘soul’, but when I comprehend what [it is that] I refer to as the soul, I comprehend that it is that thing and that it is what uses motive and cognitive instruments. I am ignorant of [the I as designated by the word ‘soul’] for only as long as I do not comprehend the meaning of ‘soul’. This is not the case with the heart or the brain, for I may comprehend the meaning of ‘heart’ and ‘brain’ and not know [the I]. When I mean by ‘soul’ that it is the thing which is the origin of those motions and cognitions that belong to me and that end in this collection, I know that either it is really me or it is me as using this body. It is as if I now was not able to distinguish the awareness of me pure and simple from [its] being mixed with the awareness that it [i.e. I] uses the body and is associated with the body.18


Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 256–257 Rahman.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


Avicenna thinks that the problem is solved by a mere reiteration of the soul’s definition. Once the soul is defined as the agent responsible for psychic acts and as the subject of experience, it becomes immediately evident that the I, which each of us is, is in fact the soul. Cashing out the psychological relevance of self-awareness is merely a matter of being reminded of the definition of soul and the fact that the soul’s functions overlap completely with our awareness of ourselves as agents and subjects. Thus, in spite of the fact that our passage only speaks of soul (nafs) as the entity studied in psychology, its embeddedness in a context of extended and explicit appeal to our intuitive familiarity with ourselves warrants reading it as a neat and revealing summary of what Avicenna means with the sort of self-awareness pivotal to the flying man and the argument from unity. The self is nothing other than I, and being aware of oneself is nothing other than being an I, existing in the first person. While Avicenna does speak about awareness of the self in two senses, as pure and simple and as associated with the body, it seems that in either case awareness of the self is nothing other than being an I; in one case it is being an I pure and simple and in the other an I associated with the body. This is just as one would expect in light of the Ta‘līqāt’s equivocation between self-awareness and the existence of the immaterial human substance. One need not become explicitly or pronouncedly aware of oneself as an I in order to be one, for the being of an I only amounts to existence in the first person. I have dwelt on this fairly straightforward chapter at such length only because I believe it reveals with particular clarity the central idea behind Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. As first-personality, self-awareness simply designates the fact that, regardless of what contents of experience I am aware of, they will always be given to me in a first-personal perspective as so many aspects of my experience. The commonplace use of the firstpersonal indexical ‘I’ points towards this primitive fact of first-personality, and as such to the mode in which the immaterial entity that acts as a soul in relation to the human body exists in itself. This may seem an excessively blunt, straightforward or even simplistic claim to make; why should we believe that self-awareness or first-personality is primitive or unanalysable, something that need not, or indeed cannot, be described or explained by means of more basic epistemological or psychological concepts? Be that as it may, Avicenna does consider it primitive in this sense. But he does not insist on the claim entirely without argument, for as we have seen, he provides systematic reasons for his view that self-awareness cannot be due to the act of any cognitive faculty. A rather elliptic version of one such argument figured in section [c] of the extended passage from the Ta‘līqāt, and we should now turn to investigate it in detail.


In the first person Argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness

The target of Avicenna’s argument is a model of self-awareness as a reflexive relation of the cognitive subject to herself. This model, which resembles the higher-order theories popular in contemporary debates on self-awareness,19 is tackled in a slightly extended form in the Ishārāt. Earlier in this context, Avicenna has presented a short version of the flying man in order to show that self-awareness does not depend on any particular object of cognition. He then proceeds to consider as a counterargument the reflectiontheoretical thesis that self-awareness requires a prior act of the self of which the self subsequently becomes reflectively aware: Perhaps you say: I cannot affirm myself except by means of my action. Then it is necessary that you have an action that you affirm in the said premise, or a movement or something else. In our consideration of the said premise we have put those out of your reach. When we regard the more general matter, if you have affirmed your action as action in the absolute sense, it is necessary that you affirm an agent of it in the absolute sense, not in the particular sense. [This agent] is your very self. If you have affirmed [your action] as your action, you do not affirm yourself through it. On the contrary, your self is part of the concept of your act insofar as it is your act. The part is affirmed in the conception preceding it and it is not made any less by being with it but not through it. Thus, your self is not affirmed through [your action].20

The counterargument is rather elliptic and leaves room for a possible ambiguity that we should first dispel. It seems to me that two senses of the expression ‘by means of my action’ are possible here, the second of which yields two further possibilities of interpretation. First of all, (1) the action mentioned can be understood as an act of reflection. The point then would be simply to say that I first become aware of myself by reflecting on myself. The other interpretation is (2) that the action by means of which one becomes aware of oneself is an act prior to reflection which then functions as the medium of self-awareness. This act, for its part can either (2a) be 19


What is more, Avicenna’s argument bears a striking resemblance to the consistent critique of reflection theories voiced by representatives of the so-called Heidelberg school of philosophers. This critique was seminally formulated by Dieter Henrich, taking his cue from Fichte, in whose ‘original insight’ he thought it first emerges (Henrich 1966 and 1970, 280–284). For an extended systematic assessment, see Zahavi 1999, 31–37. Ishārāt, namat. 3, 120. Other instances of the argument can be found in Mubāh.athāt 64, 60 Bīdārfar (370, 207 Badawī); and in Ta‘līqāt, 79. In the latter text, Avicenna states that I recognize my action (kuntu u‘arifu) through some kind of mark or characteristic (bi ‘alāmatin min al-‘alāmāt), and that self-awareness is due to the existence of the form of myself to me in a concrete fashion (li wujūdi .sūrati dhātī fī al-a‘ayāni lī).

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


self-aware in a primitive sense, or (2b) become self-aware through a reflective attention to it, in which case it would be an objective medium for the emergence of self-awareness. As we shall see, (2a) collapses with Avicenna’s own view, and since he clearly sees a genuine difference of opinion here, we can rule that interpretation out. On the other hand, (1) and (2b) collapse insofar as both require reflective attention to a state or an act that is not selfaware, that is, a relation the outcome of which is a self-aware state. The way in which Avicenna addresses the counterargument suggests that either he made no distinction between these two senses, or, if he did, he found it inconsequential. Thus, the counterargument represents a higher-order theory of self-awareness in a broad and unspecific sense. In spite of its imprecision, the counterargument seems quite plausible from the point of view of Aristotle’s theory of intellection. As we have learned, Aristotle states that the human intellect is actually nothing before it has acquired at least some intelligibles, and that once it has acquired these, it is capable of understanding or thinking about itself at will (yumkinuhu fī dhālika al-waqti an ya‘aqila nafsahu).21 There are of course a number of possible interpretations of this dense passage, but one plausible reconstruction is to read it as a theory of self-awareness or self-intellection roughly equivalent with the claim made in Avicenna’s counterargument.22 On the other hand, the counterargument need not be more than a commonsensical reaction to the striking claim, made just a few paragraphs earlier, that selfawareness is constant. Given that we explicitly consider ourselves only in states of reflection, it seems natural to assume that self-awareness in fact first comes to be at the occurrence of such states. If this is the case, Avicenna need not argue against any particular rival theory here. Regardless of the provenance of the counterargument, it obviously entails the position of a first-order non-reflective act that precedes and functions as the object of the reflective attention through which self-awareness is first claimed to emerge. Avicenna begins his response by simply stating that because of this position the counterargument is based on a miscomprehension of the flying man. If one understands the conditions posited in the thought experiment, one realizes that there are no acts upon which one 21 22

Arist.ūt.ālīs, Fī al-nafs III.4, 426b6–9, 73. Unfortunately, Ish.āq’s translation of this passage has not been preserved. For a lucid discussion of Aristotle’s theory of self-knowledge, see Lewis 1996. It must be emphasized that self-knowledge in this sense should be distinguished from consciousness, or our awareness that we perceive, think, act and so forth. Aristotle seems not to have considered in explicit terms the question of whether consciousness entails self-awareness in the particular sense meant by Avicenna; in any case the inherent first-personality of all consciousness never becomes a pronounced topic for him. See Chapter 1.1, 12–15.


In the first person

could reflect. But most important for our concerns, Avicenna decides to give his opponent the benefit of further doubt in order to show that her argument can be refuted on its own terms, independently from the flying man. Avicenna thus uses the counterargument as a means to corroborate his own thesis that self-awareness is immediate and epistemically primitive. Suppose, then, that we first become aware of ourselves through an act of reflection. In such a case, two possibilities emerge: either the pre-reflective act is an act in an absolute sense, that is, not the act of any particular agent, or it is an act of a particular agent. In the first case, the object of reflection will be simply an act or a mental state with certain determinations (an act of thinking, walking, hitting and so forth; or a state of perception, imagination or intellection) and certain objective content (a thought concerning something, walking somewhere, hitting something; perception, imagination or intellection of something). Such an act or state could belong to anyone, and by the same token, is not actually particular to any agent. This being the case, Avicenna asks how one can identify such an anonymous act or state as one’s own in reflection. If the state is not particular to any subject, it cannot be mine either. There are no non-arbitrary means of introducing any kind of ‘mineness’ in the act of reflection, for if the reflection is supposed to be a truthful act of intellection, it should grasp the first-order non-reflective state as it is, without any additions or distortions. But if the self is nowhere to be recognized in the object of reflection, why should the act of reflection give rise to any sort of self-awareness any more than my current perception of any random object, such as the pine outside my window. In this regard, the non-reflective state will be an object like any other, not earmarked to any particular cognitive subject, and the reflection turns out to not be reflexive in any meaningful sense after all. If we want to hold on to the possibility of reflective self-awareness, the state prior to reflection must already be characterized as my state in some manner. The reflective act will then recognize this characteristic of the state along with its own determinations, and as a result I will be aware of the prior state as something I myself have undergone. By all accounts, this would be a perfectly legitimate account of reflection for Avicenna. However, the phenomenon to be explained was not reflective self-awareness but our being self-aware in the first place. Thus, Avicenna can say that his opponent has to concede a certain characteristic of myness in the non-reflective first-order state and therefore all but admit that reflective self-awareness is based on a more primitive type of self-awareness. The order of explanation is inverted and the counterargument turns out to be based on a petitio principii; it fails to explain self-awareness because it ends up presupposing self-awareness in

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


the very explanation. Avicenna formulates the point very carefully: the fact that self-awareness occurs together with an act or experiential content, that is, that my first-personality is rarely bare but rather most often connected to acts or objects that are first-personally given, does not make it subsequent to those acts or dependent on those objects. Rather, in these cases just as in the rather less usual case of the flying man, in which self-awareness figures divested of all further determinations of the person’s acts or experiences, self-awareness is an irreducible constituent of the act or the experience as an act or an experience that belongs to a particular subject. Again, the point of spelling this admirably clear argument out at such length is to make explicit the concept of self-awareness it hinges upon. I claim that the most natural interpretation here, just as in the case of the argument from unity, is to say that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness purports to grasp nothing more than the fact that all my experience is qualified as mine, that no matter what I apprehend I will apprehend as an I, and that every act of mine is performed by me. In other words, when speaking of self-awareness Avicenna attempts to pick out the firstpersonality inherent in all human beings, and that everything about us is given in the first person, to a first-personal subject. Nothing more is meant, but nothing less either. Self-awareness is being an I, which is the mode of existence proper to an immaterial entity. Argument from personal identity The sixth book of the Mubāh.athāt introduces a third argument revolving around the phenomenon of self-awareness. The argument is embedded in a discussion of the endurance of individual substances through the change of their attributes. Against this background we suddenly come across a clear statement of dissatisfaction with the flying man voiced by one of Avicenna’s most illustrious students, Bahmanyār ibn Marzubān (d. 1066).23 I want that a method other than self-awareness (al-shu‘ūri bi al-dhāt) be applied to me in showing that,24 for I have already attempted that myself (fa innī qad jārabtu nafsī fī dhālika),25 and in my opinion it is deceptive – in spite

23 24 25

For Bahmanyār’s relation to Avicenna, see Reisman 2002, 185–195; and Janssens 2003b. That is, in showing what the endurance of individual substances is due to. This refers to the argument on self-awareness, that is, the flying man; Bahmanyār has performed the thought experiment but is dissatisfied with it.


In the first person of its validity26 – and I want to know it in another way, so that my heart will find peace.27

Avicenna’s answer takes its cue from the question posed by the context: The persistence of a numerically one thing is that it persists as numerically one in terms not of its quantity and quality but in terms of its substance. Then my persistence as a single I in terms of my substantial thatness (thumma thabātī anā wāh.idan bi innīyatī al-jawharīya), [the fact] that what existed yesterday has not perished or ceased to exist while numerically another has come to be, that I am that observer of what I observed yesterday and the one remembering what I have forgotten from what I observed yesterday – [all this] is something about which no doubt occurs to me, and similarly I have not come to be today, nor is my body something that was corrupted yesterday, I will not cease to exist tomorrow and my individual will not be corrupted, even if my time should come tomorrow and a substance other than me should come to be. Thus, if he whose servant I am28 is of the opinion that he has come to be today from his simile that was corrupted yesterday, and that he is not that which existed yesterday, but that he is renewed in substance just as he is renewed in states, let him be of that opinion and have that view, and let him ask in another place for an additional explanation for this proof.29

Avicenna believes he can point to an indubitable intuition in his interlocutor’s experience, which provides immediate evidence of the endurance of the interlocutor’s very substance in the midst of the constant change he is subject to in terms of his attributes. That evidence is provided by the interlocutor’s remaining the same I, that is, by his awareness of himself as the subject that is aware of itself now just as it was aware of itself the day before. The argument is not entirely unrelated to the flying man with which Bahmanyār was expressly dissatisfied; it characterizes its nodal point by the very same term as the version of flying man in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, pointing our attention to a single ‘thatness’ (innīya) at the core of our mental life, and suggesting that the recognition of the correct nature of this thatness is instrumental to reaching the desired conclusion. But there are also clear differences between the two arguments. Indeed, where the flying man is 26

27 29

The reference of the suffixes here is ambiguous, but I believe the most sensible reading is: ‘and in my opinion [the flying man] is deceptive – in spite of the validity of [the claim that the individual substance endures through the change of its attributes]’. Mubāh.athāt VI.402, 146–147 Bīdārfar. 28 That is, Bahmanyār. Mubāh.athāt VI.403, 147 Bīdārfar (453, 227 Badawī); cf. III.94, 68 Bīdārfar (cf. 430, 224 Badawī); and VI.456–460, 163–165 Bīdārfar (39, 128–129, and 454, 226–227 Badawī). For discussion, see Sebti 2000, 110–111.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


about the independent existence of this thatness, this argument from personal identity hinges on its endurance through the variation of its attributes. Also, the flying man was designed to argue for the independence from the body of that which functions as a soul in us, whereas this argument aims to single out that which is substantial in us and to distinguish it from its quality, quantity, and other features that are subject to constant variation. I would like to argue however that, these clear differences notwithstanding, the similarities are more important. First of all, both arguments try to point attention to something readily available from our experience, and to do this by separating this something from the accidental features we commonly find it associated with, whether particular observations, recollections and so forth, or the relation to the body in its entirety. Secondly, and more importantly, it seems that the thing pointed to in the two arguments is one and the same, the interlocutor’s awareness of himself as an I. It is true that they emphasize distinct aspects of this self-awareness: the flying man its epistemic and metaphysical independence, the argument from personal identity its endurance and identity in change. But such differences in emphasis need not entail a difference in the object of attention; indeed, both arguments are readily understandable if we suppose that they rely on one and the same phenomenon. But if the argument from personal identity builds on the same evidence as the flying man, why should Avicenna expect it to prove any more persuasive? We have to notice that in the last paragraph he recognizes the possibility that Bahmanyār will remain unconvinced even after the consideration of this new piece of correspondence, but it is hard to avoid perceiving a scarcely hidden irony in his manner of addressing the student. This is probably due to the commonsensicality of his new argument: Avicenna seems to hold that common sense and human social life require this awareness of persistent first-personality of each of us. If we did not rely on the endurance of ourselves, we would have no basis upon which to plan our future, make agreements or promises, or give reliable accounts of past observations. The basis of that reliance, the fact that each of us is first and foremost an I, is all that Avicenna is attempting to point to here. It is for the sake of this purpose that he identifies being an I with being a substance, for he clearly presumes Bahmanyār to subscribe to the foundations of Aristotelian metaphysics – the sort of thing that endures through change is a substance. Thus, although the flying man and the argument from personal identity are founded on the same evidence, Avicenna does have a point in supposing the latter to be more palatable; instead of relying on an


In the first person

imaginative thought experiment, it hinges on a necessary condition of one of our most commonplace beliefs. Finally, regardless of the shared ground between the flying man and the argument from personal identity, there remains the question of whether the latter is really relevant for our present purpose, namely the reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. This is a pressing question for two reasons. First of all, because Avicenna does not mention self-awareness or the self anywhere in the text, and although he does explicitly speak about the first person, or the I, this is only to provide evidence for the persistence of the substantial core in each of us. Secondly, in the context of Mubāh.athāt VI, the argument from personal identity is provided as an alternative to the flying man, which Bahmanyār in his question describes as an argument from self-awareness. Should we thus not expect this argument to deal with something decidedly different? The second concern can, I believe, be met by the aforementioned distinction between differences in emphasis on a single phenomenon. Whereas it seems natural to call the flying man an argument from selfawareness – it is, after all, based on distinguishing the mode of our awareness of ourselves from the mode of our awareness of other things, our bodies in particular – the present argument points out a distinction in the interlocutor’s experience between a persisting feature, hinting at his substance, and varying features, hinting at his various accidents, without any mention of differences in the respective modes of grasping these two types of features. But this can be explained as due to a difference in application, while the feature applied in the two arguments is one and the same: the fact that each of us, Bahmanyār included, is first, foremost and always an I. As regards the first concern, it is clear that the argument from personal identity is not meant to define self-awareness or simply point our attention to it. Instead, just as in the case of the flying man and the argument from the unity of experience, the phenomenon of first-personality is cast in an exclusively instrumental explanatory role; it becomes the focus of attention only in order to transfer us to the ultimate conclusion, whether that is the independent existence of the entity that functions as soul in the human body or, as here, the endurance of the human substance. Successful performance in this explanatory role does not depend on a specific term of description; on the contrary, a technical term such as shu‘ūr bi al-dhāt may prove counterproductive by revoking the sort of technical questions the flying man had given rise to. For our purpose, it is crucial to recognize the similarities in the experiential data on which the arguments rely, and for these I have already argued at length.

Three Avicennian arguments from first-personality


The relevance of self-awareness to the argument from personal identity is also corroborated by the fact that the argument makes explicit a metaphysical entailment which is of considerable importance to all of Avicenna’s discussions of self-awareness, even when its formulation is left implicit. This is the claim that the narrowly defined but enduring I provides us with unique information of our respective substances, the metaphysical bases of our very being: any attribute of mine, whether my act or a content of my experience, can change, but the I, the substance to which and the perspective from which those attributes appear, will remain intact. In this sense, the substantial core of human being, unlike that of other animals, is not available by abstracting from our third-personal apprehension of the informing functions it performs on the body – a fact evidenced by the need for a separate reminder at the end of the review of the soul’s functions in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1. This implication is explicit in a passage from the relatively early Risāla al-adh.awīya fī al-ma‘ād,30 in which Avicenna explicitly distinguishes between˙ ‘the thing due to which “he” (huwa) is said of [a human being]’, and the way in which ‘he says “I” of himself (yaqūlu li nafsihi anā)’.31 Later on in the same context Avicenna describes the reference of the first-person indexical in a manner that expresses in a concise form the central insight behind all the arguments we have been considering: When it comes to truth, the human, or the thing considered of the human on which the meaning of I is based in him (huwa al-wāqi‘u ‘alayhi ma‘nā anā minhu), is his real self (dhātuhu al-h.aqīqīya); it is the thing of which he knows that he is it, and it is certainly the soul.32

In light of the foregoing analysis, the density of the passage is not an obstacle to its clarity: the I is the real self and essence of a human being, and thereby his substance, and it is the thing discussed as soul in psychology. Now, if the Risāla al-adh.awīya is indeed an early work, and if the sixth book of the Mubāh.athāt˙ can be dated to the last decade of Avicenna’s life,33 this insight into first-personality and its argumentative potential informed the entire period of gestation of his most important philosophical works.

30 31 33

For an argument for the early dating (1014–1015) as well as a brief consideration of rival views, see Michot 2003a, 149–151; cf., however, Marmura 2008, 132. Al-Risāla al-adh.awīya IV, 127. 32 Al-Risāla al-adh.awīya IV, 128. ˙ by Reisman 2002, 233–239, 252. ˙ As is suggested


In the first person

4.2 First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence Having thus reconstructed the Avicennian concept of self-awareness, let us consider it in relation to the two conditions we stated at the beginning of this chapter. The questions to ask are (1) whether the reconstructed concept of self-awareness is plausible given that the phenomenon underlying it should be constant, and (2) whether it makes sense to suppose that selfawareness in the intended sense is readily available to each and every one of us in our own experience, so that by means of it we can retain whatever capacity of persuasion the flying man had to begin with. (1) Let us approach the question of the constancy of self-awareness by considering the cases of the sleeping and the intoxicated person which Avicenna mentions together with the Ishārāt version of the flying man: Return to yourself (irja‘ ilā nafsika) and consider whether, if you were healthy or even in some other state of yours, [but] so that you grasp the matter accurately, you would be ignorant of the existence of yourself (dhātika) and would not affirm yourself (nafsaka). I do not think this would happen to the perspicacious. Even in the case of a sleeper in his sleep or a drunk person in his drunkenness, his self will not escape his self (lā taghrubu dhātuhu ‘an dhātihi), even if no representation of him in himself (tamaththuluhu li dhātihi) were left in his memory. If you imagine your self (law tawahhamta dhātaka) to have been initially created perfect in intellect and configuration, and [your self] is supposed to be all in all in such position and configuration that its parts are not seen and its limbs do not touch each other but are rather momentarily suspended apart in open air, you will find it (wajadtahā) even though you are ignorant of everything but the persistence of its thatness (thubūti annīyatihā).34

Considered in isolation, the text allows for two ways of understanding the respective states of the two persons. Either the sleep and the intoxication are so profound that the persons are in states we would now call unconscious, that is, lacking consciousness of any cognitive input whatsoever, or they are in states that are not completely unconscious but still in some relevant sense different from the healthy or sound states mentioned in the text. Avicenna’s dense characterization of the latter (‘so that you grasp the matter accurately’) suggests that the relevant difference between sound and unsound states concerns the human capacity (or lack thereof) to reflect discerningly on oneself and to thereby assert the existence of one’s self. This amounts to saying that the sleeping and the drunk person are incapable of turning their attention to their self-awareness, but this does not necessarily rule out their 34

Ishārāt, namat. 3, 119.

First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence


being non-reflectively aware of a variety of things, from angels and pink elephants to themselves. But since the sleeper and the drunk are followed by the much clearer and stricter conditions set in the flying man, one easily wonders why Avicenna considered it worth his while to introduce them in the first place. If there is something going on in their minds, the sleeper and the drunk will be less problematic cases than the flying man, for surely it is more plausible to assume that someone actually aware of something is also aware of herself than to assume that someone aware of nothing is nevertheless self-aware. On the other hand, if the sleeper and the drunk are lacking awareness altogether, their case seems to be identical to that of the flying man.35 Avicenna’s motive for considering the two examples becomes clear in a corresponding section of the Mubāh.athāt where their introduction is attributed to his opponent, Abū al-Qāsim al-Kirmānī.36 Here it becomes obvious that we should understand the sleeper and the drunk to be in the less stringent condition; the sleeper may well be dreaming and therefore entertaining all sorts of experiential content, and mutatis mutandis this will hold of the intoxicated person as well. Avicenna neglects any mention of the dreaming person’s lack of reflective capacity here, possibly because he finds it sufficient to simply show that something is going on in the person’s mind.37 Indeed, this seems a natural move in the light of our reconstruction of his concept of self-awareness: if self-awareness amounts to nothing but the first-personal perspective to whatever is in one’s mind, then the presence of any mental content will indeed be enough. However, since the flying man is prominently featured in the context of the Mubāh.athāt as well,38 we still have to solve the second problem: why worry about the weaker case if you have at your disposal an argument that will clear the table anyway? The need for this extension of the initial 35


37 38

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Avicenna’s critical commentator, interprets the different states as exemplifying distinct degrees of discernment (fit.na). According to him, in sleep only the external senses are rendered dysfunctional. Intoxication, on the other hand, amounts to the inefficiency of both external and internal senses, and therefore entails a more serious lapse of consciousness. See Sharh. al-Ishārāt, 121–122; and for discussion and translation of the passage, Marmura 1991. This attribution may be historically true, for if Mubāh.athāt III was written after the acrimonious encounter with al-Kirmānī in Rayy in 1030 (as argued in Reisman 2002, 216–219, with a refutation of Michot’s (1997, 153–163) alternative dating), it may well have incorporated elements of that discussion. Moreover, Ishārāt is also commonly dated to a late period in Avicenna’s career (1030– 1034 in Gutas 1988, 140–141), and if this is right, Avicenna may have included a tacit reference to the debate in it. Mubāh.athāt 380, 210 Badawī; III.68, 61 Bīdārfar. Indeed, the entire section consists of Avicenna’s responses to al-Kirmānī’s critical remarks concerning the flying man.


In the first person

argument is due to a briefly cited remark by al-Kirmānī who, seemingly unhappy with the highly fanciful situation of the flying man, attempts to bring the discussion of self-awareness down to the level of everyday phenomena.39 It is for this reason that he introduces the case of the sleeper: whatever our verdict on the flying man, surely it makes no sense to claim that a sleeping person is aware of herself. Had I been aware of myself throughout the night, even if I was aware of nothing else, surely I should be able to remember at least having been aware of that peculiar nothingness. By the same token, if I was aware of myself throughout my intoxication, should it not have felt like something to pass out, and should I not be able now to remember what it was like? Since no such recollections seem to be forthcoming, al-Kirmānī suggests that we should deny Avicenna’s argument from the constancy of self-awareness to the immateriality of the human substance, and thereby also reject his concept of self-awareness. The fact that Avicenna wants to integrate the sleeper and the intoxicated person in the Ishārāt’s introductory argument for the immateriality of the human substance suggests that he is fully aware of the initial implausibility of his claim that our self-awareness is constant, and that he believes he can deal with the contrary intuition. True to the general method of the Ishārāt, his answer is condensed, but it can be extrapolated by means of the extended version in the Mubāh.athāt: The sleeper operates on his imaginations (khayālātihi) just as he operates on [the things] he senses when awake, and he often operates on intellectual and cogitative things just as when awake. In the state of his operation on that he is aware that he is that operator just as he is at the state of being awake, and so if he notices and remembers his operations, he remembers his awareness of himself (shu‘ūrahu bi dhātihi), but if he notices but does not remember that, he does not remember his awareness of himself (shu‘ūrahu bi dhātihi). That does not indicate that he wasn’t aware of himself (shā‘iran bi dhātihi). Rather, awareness of self-awareness is different from self-awareness (al-shu‘ūru bi al-shu‘ūri bi al-dhāti ghayru al-shu‘ūri bi al-dhāt), and so remembering selfawareness is different from self-awareness (dhikra al-shu‘ūri bi al-dhāti ghayru al-shu‘ūri bi al-dhāt). Even one who is awake may not remember his awareness of himself (shu‘ūruhu bi dhātihi) when the pursuits, which he had and during which he was not unaware of himself (lam yaghfulu fīhā ‘an dhātihi), are not retained in his memory.40

Avicenna’s argument is admirably clear: it is one thing to be aware of oneself and another thing to have second-order awareness of this self-awareness, 39 40

Mubāh.athāt III.65–66, 60–61 Bīdārfar; cf. 380, 210 Badawī. Mubāh.athāt III.68, 61 Bīdārfar; cf. 380, 210 Badawī.

First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence


such as when one remembers that one was aware of oneself, and no lack of the latter warrants an inference to a corresponding lack of the former. In this regard, self-awareness is not different from awareness of other things, such as one’s own acts or ‘pursuits’ (muzāwalāt) or the objects of one’s experience; no jury will relieve a defendant simply because she fails to remember committing the crime she is charged with. No matter how sincere this failure is, it does not exclude the possibility that the defendant in fact did commit the crime – and if she did, she was certainly aware of herself in the intended sense. This extended version of the argument is fully coherent with Avicenna’s psychological theory of memory. For him, memory is an internal sense the function of which is to retain the peculiar cognitive objects he calls meanings (ma‘ānī). The exact nature of meanings is a matter of scholarly debate,41 but in this context it suffices to recognize that they are constituents of experience that, among other things, enable us to bring past experiences to mind. Whatever the exact mechanism according to which meanings perform this task, it is clear that recollection will not take place without them. Moreover, it is equally uncontroversial to say that meanings are determinations of the objective content of experience, that is, aspects that are inseparable from the appearance of some object of awareness. Thus, what distinguishes the sleeping and the intoxicated person from a human being in a wakeful and sober state is that no meanings belonging to their respective experiences are left in their memories. As a result, they have no access to their past experiences, and it is only because of this that their awareness of themselves as the subjects of those particular experiences is also unavailable to them. While Avicenna does not go into great detail concerning the questions of why this is the case and what causes the cessation in the act of memory in sleep or intoxication, it is clear that the account would have to involve the liberation of the faculty of imagination from the governance of estimation and its apprehension of meanings.42 But regardless of the detailed reasons for these kinds of ‘meaningless’ mental states and the consequent lack of memory in the two cases of the sleeper and the intoxicated person, Avicenna’s point remains straightforward: continuity in the sense required of the primitive type of self-awareness does not entail that we should remember every past moment in the continuity of our self-aware mental life. On the contrary, owing to the nature of the meanings stored in memory, any recollection of a past moment requires remembering an 41 42

For memory and meanings, see above Chapter 1.2, 25–27. Cf. the scattered remarks in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs IV.2, 170–171, 174–176 and 181–182 Rahman.


In the first person

experience with some objective content.43 Or to be more precise, remembering amounts to bringing that content to mind anew. But when the estimative grasp of meanings is cut out, nothing can be retained in memory, and nothing retrieved from it as content of past experience. There will simply be nothing to remember. In his answer Avicenna therefore grants that we have no immediate knowledge of what the states of sleep and intoxication were like, because we have no memory of those states and therefore no access whatsoever to them. I have no idea of what went on in my mind between the moments of my falling asleep and waking up. Although I can infer, by taking a look at an external indicator of time such as the bedside alarm clock or the sky, that there is a yawning temporal gap between my last recollection of the night before and my morning state of awareness, I will nevertheless lack first-hand experiential knowledge of passing the gap. All I have is knowledge by inference. Avicenna’s point is, however, that the assumption of the gap, while entirely correct and warranted in its own right, does not allow us to conclude a corresponding gap, or indeed any kind of breach, in our selfawareness. Self-awareness and the memory of having been self-aware are two entirely different matters. Even if sleep and intoxication can be claimed to prevent us from the latter, they do not warrant our drawing any conclusions about self-awareness, because the alleged lapses from it can be explained as mere absence of memory-traces. It must of course be added that the distinction between being aware of oneself and remembering having been aware of oneself in no way demonstrates Avicenna’s thesis about the continuity of self-awareness either. But this is not a problem for him, because a further demonstration is not what he is after in this debate with al-Kirmānī. Rather, if his thesis about the constancy of self-awareness turns out to be a natural consequence of the psychological tradition and its conception of the intellect, the burden of proof is returned to the challenging interlocutor. In other words, if human souls in themselves are immaterial entities – a thesis Avicenna took to be demonstrable by other means – they must be somehow there and aware even when the body’s lights are off. Moreover, if the primitive type of selfawareness is in fact the most minimal account of what such existence-cumawareness might consist of, the interlocutor suddenly appears to stand on much less secure ground. It suffices for Avicenna to be able to show that sleep and intoxication do not force us to infer any straightforward denial of the constancy of self-awareness and that the claim of those states lacking 43

Cf. Mubāh.athāt 380, 210 Badawī; III.68, 61 Bīdārfar.

First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence


self-awareness is no less an undemonstrated one than his claim – indeed, in the light of other concerns it turns out to stand on shakier ground. Thus, Avicenna can consistently say that self-awareness, in the narrow sense of first-personality, is constant and continuous, and therefore something he can consistently equivocate with human existence. (2) The other condition that the reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness should fulfil is due to a particular aspect of the flying man argument. As I emphasized in discussing the thought experiment, its plausibility hinges on the interlocutor’s capacity of locating the phenomenon of self-awareness in her own experience. Although Avicenna does demand a certain amount of wit from the interlocutor, it is important to notice that this is only required to be able to pay second-order analytic attention to something any normally developed human being will have as a necessary constituent of her experience. This abstractive feat may be beyond the capacity of some people,44 but its object is not generated in it. On the contrary, in order that the thought experiment prove plausible in the first place, it is crucial that we deal not with any special state of mind but instead with something familiar to each of us from a perfectly commonplace human experience.45 I believe that the reconstructed concept of self-awareness will survive the test. Although not uncontroversial, it nevertheless makes reasonable sense to say that if I have successfully bracketed all objective content of my experience, I will still be left with the peculiar mode of givenness or appearance of all such content, that is, its appearance to me. In other words, the fact that I am an I will remain in spite of the absence of all further determinations of that I, whether as tasting an apple, thinking about the identity of indiscernibles, fancying a beer or walking about in the park. The flying man’s unusual experience of nothing will be my experience in this commonplace sense. Furthermore, this reconstruction is capable of retaining the argument’s motivation as well as the precise technical sense in which Avicenna speaks of it as a reminder. Consider the brief description of this type of argument in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, that is, in the very context in which Avicenna presents a shorter version of the flying man. 44 45

Cf. Avicenna’s scarcely veiled diatribe against al-Kirmānī in Mubāh.athāt III.56–65, 58–60 Bīdārfar (partly in 370, 207 Badawī). Although this point may seem trivial, it has been debated (see Chapter 2.2, 38–41). Moreover, the debate with al-Kirmānī in Mubāh.athāt III suggests that it was not entirely obvious to Avicenna’s contemporaries either.


In the first person [I]t is not when I am investigating whether [the thing which governs the body] exists and whether it is not a body that I am wholly ignorant of it, rather I do not pay attention to it. It is often the case that knowledge about something is close at hand, but one does not pay attention to it, so that it verges on the unknown and is investigated at the greatest remove. Sometimes knowledge that is close at hand is like the reminder, which is lost through inadequate effort, so that one’s wit, due to the weakness of [its] grasp, does not find the way to it, and then one needs to approach it from afar.46

As a reminder, the flying man is designed to make us aware of something that is particularly close to us but most often tends to escape our attention. Now, it does not seem far-fetched to say that our first-personality is precisely such a thing. For the most part, we are immersed in and preoccupied with the various contents of our experience, lacking either a reason, time or both to concentrate on the fact that those contents are firstpersonally given and that each of us is there to experience them in each case as our own. In this regard, self-awareness is exactly like the first intelligibles, to the simultaneous presence and absence of which in our thought Avicenna explicitly compares it.47 When we apply the law of non-contradiction in everyday reasoning, for instance when I attempt to persuade my daughter that she cannot both go out to play and stay sitting in front of the television, we rarely pause to consider the law itself but rather concentrate on the application. Were someone to ask us about this aspect of our reasoning, we may even find ourselves utterly confused and incapable of formulating a coherent general law apart from the concrete instances of its application, let alone demonstrate the law. Yet when a teacher of logic brings the law to our attention by sufficiently clever pedagogical means, perhaps indeed arguing for it indirectly by means of an Avicennian reminder, we will eventually recognize the intuitive plausibility of the law as something we have in fact been relying on all along. This is exactly the kind of plausibility or familiarity Avicenna expects his concept of selfawareness to be found to have. If we have a look at the discussion related to the flying man in the Mubāh.athāt, it becomes clear that in this case the teacher’s intention was not particularly easy to grasp. Most of the discussion revolves around critical remarks that arise from the interlocutor’s incapacity or refusal to recognize a mode of awareness that is not based on the normal functioning of any of the human cognitive capacities.48 This, however, need not be fatal for our 46 47 48

Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 257 Rahman. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 257 Rahman; cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt I.5.1–5, 22–23. See Mubāh.athāt III.56–74, 58–61 Bīdārfar; for discussion, cf. Michot 1997, 168–174.

First-personality, the flying man and incorporeal existence


reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. To begin with, the concept of self-awareness Avicenna introduces is a novel one, and the phenomenon on which it is based has no ready-made niche in the preceding psychological tradition. There is certainly nothing extraordinary in a philosophical novelty proving to be difficult to palate. But there is also a further difficulty, which is due to a peculiarity of the flying man, and indeed any attempt to pay explicit attention to primitive self-awareness, for performing the thought experiment involves at least three distinct levels of awareness, a confusion between which is both easy and understandable. On the first-order level we have the constant prereflective self-awareness that is prior to the thought experiment and entirely independent of whether or not we ever perform anything like it. This level should be distinguished from the higher-order consideration involved in actually performing the imaginative manoeuvres which the thought experiment requires of us and which are designed to bring us to a state in which we notice something about the first-order state that we had not paid attention to before. Furthermore, we can distinguish another higher-order level on which we draw conclusions about first-order awareness on the basis of the results of our second-order state that resulted from a successful performance of the thought experiment. The two higher-order states of awareness are reflective acts in relation to the first-order awareness, but it is very easy to confuse at the third level of psychological conclusions the act of reflection, which has the first-order state as its particular object, with self-awareness pure and simple, by holding that the first-order state is somehow transformed from a state lacking self-awareness to a self-aware one by the reflective act. Avicenna’s explicit claim, however, is that the thought experiment points towards something that was already there. All that it brings into being is our attention to that something.49 Failure to realize this will result in exactly the kind of criticism the Mubāh.athāt is witness to: that our first becoming self-aware requires a particular intellectual process, such as performing the thought experiment of the flying man.50 Avicenna, however, attributes the confusion to al-Kirmānī’s lack of required wit, showing quite striking impatience towards his older peer. Finally, the use of self-awareness in the flying man entails a potential third problem that we should address. This is because the argument clearly 49 50

This is also evident from the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness, which Avicenna reiterates in the context of the Mubāh.athāt dealing with the flying man. This confusion is addressed in Suhrawardī’s discussion of the flying man in Talwīh.at III.4.3, 156 Habībī; see Chapter 5.1, 107–108.


In the first person

relies on self-awareness as an important piece of evidence for the human self’s incorporeality. Now, if self-awareness is nothing but being an I and therefore not based on any constant act of intellection with a specific object, the evidence it provides must be different from that applied in Avicenna’s proof from the indivisibility of intelligible objects and intellectual subjects.51 The question then is, what sort of evidence can self-awareness provide? Why could it not just as well be a feature of a corporeal subject? Here again it is important to distinguish clearly between the initial level of self-awareness and the reflective attention paid to it in the course of the thought experiment. It is not self-awareness as such that provides evidence of our incorporeality – were that the case, the question would not have been debated in the first place. Rather, crucial to the argument is the fact that our awareness of ourselves is readily given to us as an object of reflection, independent of any mediating cognitive instruments or acts. The capacity to reflect presupposes incorporeality, for corporeal things are by definition incapable of such a wholesome relation to themselves.52 But it also presupposes that the object reflected upon is available to the reflecting subject, in other words that the subject is already aware of itself in some manner before it turns its reflective gaze to itself. In the Ta‘līqāt, Avicenna refers to this givenness by means of various formulations based on the notion of the self’s presence (h.udūr) to itself, a term which gains in stature in the twelfth-century reception˙ of Avicenna that we will soon turn to study.53 The idea is that the self is constantly present to itself, regardless of whether anything else is present to it, or whether it ever turns to reflect on this presence. The mere capacity of performing this turn, which the thought experiment of the flying man by necessity actualizes for its performer, is sufficient to indicate the self’s incorporeality, and as Avicenna states explicitly in the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness, self-awareness in the simple sense of presence is a necessary condition of the reflective capacity. It is in this sense that selfawareness provides evidence of the incorporeality of the self, quite independently of the inference from the indivisibility of intellectual objects to the indivisibility, and the consequent incorporeality, of the subject of intellection.

51 52 53

For this proof, see Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.2, 211–218 Rahman; and Chapter 3.1, 43. In the psychological context, this amounts to denying the claim that the corporeal cognitive faculties are capable of apprehending their own acts. See Najāt II.6, 218. Cf., for instance, Ta‘līqāt, 69, 79, 148, 162. For ‘presence’ in Rāzī and Suhrawardī, see Chapter 6.1.

Self-awareness, reflection and intellection


4.3 Self-awareness, reflection and intellection Our characterization of primitive self-awareness by setting it in contradistinction to explicit self-reflection naturally gives rise to a question: does Avicenna have a concept of reflectivity that is developed enough to provide a sufficient basis for the distinction? I would therefore like to conclude this chapter with an argument for the view that although his remarks are somewhat scattered, we can reconstruct a genuinely Avicennian concept of reflectivity that is not only systematically and historically plausible but also intimately connected to, indeed relying on, his concept of primitive self-awareness. Finally, with the reconstructed concept of reflectivity as our cue, we can perhaps better dispel some of the doubts caused by certain problematic passages from the Mubāh.athāt that are well known but that we have so far refrained from addressing. The central insight of Avicenna’s concept of reflection was introduced in nuce towards the end of section [b] of the lengthy passage from the Ta‘līqāt. Self-awareness is actual for the soul, so that it is constantly aware of itself. As regards awareness of the awareness, it is potential; if awareness of the awareness were actual, it would be constant and no consideration of the intellect (i‘tibār al-‘aql) would be needed in it.54

Here, Avicenna explicitly distinguishes reflective self-awareness from primitive self-awareness by referring to the former as a higher-order ‘awareness of awareness’, and by describing the higher-order awareness as potential, intermittent and requiring an intellectual effort of consideration. The brevity of the passage belies the fact that it expresses a reasonably considered view, for these statements clearly echo a more elaborate account found in the Ishārāt: You know that anything, which understands something, understands by a potentiality close to actuality (bi al-quwwati al-qarībati min al-fi‘l) that it understands [that thing], and that is intellection of [the thing] for it (wa dhālika ‘aqlun minhu li dhātihi). Thus, whatever understands something is able to understand itself (lahu an ya‘aqila dhātahu).55

Avicenna qualifies the human potential for reflective self-awareness as ‘potentiality close to actuality’. This notion stems from Aristotle, who in a well-known passage from De anima II.5 distinguishes between the three senses in which a human being can be said to know things. In the weakest sense, a person is a potential knower by virtue of the fact that she is a 54

Ta‘līqāt, 161; emphases added.


Ishārāt, namat. 3, 132.


In the first person

member of the human species, an essential characteristic of which is the capacity to know. A person is potentially knowing in a stronger sense, if she has acquired a piece of knowledge through prior insight, experience or instruction, and thus has access to that knowledge at will, but is not presently engaged in the consideration of her knowledge. Finally, a person is actually knowing, if she has acquired knowledge and is presently engaged in the consideration of her knowledge.56 Avicenna rephrases this Aristotelian idea to accord with his theory of knowledge as a combination of abstractive effort and receptivity to intellectual emanation, but retains the central distinction between the two types of cognitive potency. In the discussion of learning in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, he defines learning as the acquisition of a capacity to connect to the active intellect at will in order to receive the content of thought that one has learned, or to put it another way, learning is the capacity to bring to mind the preparedness, for instance a certain mental image or linguistic symbol, that is required for the renewed reception of the learned piece of knowledge. Avicenna then distinguishes the two senses of potency Aristotle had described by using the very terms applied in the description of reflective self-awareness: But if one has turned away from [what one has learned], the faculty [of understanding] recedes and the form becomes potential, albeit potential very close to actuality (quwwatan qarībatan jiddan min al-fi‘l). The initial learning [of something] is like treating the eye which, when it has become a healthy eye, can turn according to its wish towards the thing from which it receives some form. And when it has turned away from that thing, the thing becomes potential close to actuality.57

It is hardly a coincidence that Avicenna uses this concept to describe the capacity of self-reflection. The reflective capacity in us is naturally conceived as analogous to a person’s capacity to consider the knowledge she has acquired but is not presently preoccupied with. As a potentiality close to actuality, it is something one can actualize at will, and in this sense reflective self-awareness, or awareness of awareness, is a constantly open possibility for any primitively self-aware subject. At any moment, we can turn our attention to the primitively self-aware act, thought or perception that we are presently engaged in. This much is a natural consequence of the received theory of intellection. As Avicenna reiterates time and again, anything that is immaterial in itself is readily available for an intellect to understand. The only property that can 56

Ar. De an. II.5, 417a22–417b20.


Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 247 Rahman.

Self-awareness, reflection and intellection


prevent a thing from being understood is materiality.58 Yet the human self is only one possible object of intellection among many others, even to itself, and for this reason its reflective turn towards itself is merely intermittent. Avicenna also specifies that reflexivity in this sense is exclusive to entities endowed with intellection; only that which ‘understands something’ is capable of taking its own understanding as an object of a further act of understanding. Again, this is due to the immateriality of all subjects of intellection, for only an immaterial entity is capable of a genuine and wholesome relation to herself. However, although Avicenna refrains from mentioning another necessary condition for reflection in this particular pointer, since he mentions it earlier on in the Ishārāt and states it slightly later on in the relevant section of the Ta‘līqāt, it seems warranted to incorporate it into his full account of reflective self-awareness. This condition is of course primitive self-awareness as the reflective subject’s constant familiarity with herself, as spelled out in the argument against the reflection-model of self-awareness. Notice that the argument was designed not to deny our capacity of reflection, but to argue that it has to be founded on a more primitive type of self-awareness that allows us to recognize the act reflected upon as belonging to ourselves. Thus, self-reflection is possible only if the self is already primitively given in the object of reflection to which one turns, that is, if it provides an individuating reference for the concepts by means of which we reflect upon ourselves, as outlined above. But how is the subject given to herself in reflection? Two preconditions our answer must meet bear mentioning here. First, the subject must be given as primitively individual in order to be identified with the individual subject that performs the reflective act. However, at the same time it must be possible to subsume it under the universal attributes that are employed in the reflective act. This is because, in the above passages, Avicenna has explicitly described reflection as an act of intellectual consideration, and acts of intellection simply are, by definition, acts constituted by universal content. How, then, to meet two such seemingly contradictory preconditions? Deborah Black has recently made the interesting suggestion that the individual meanings encountered in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12 might play a role in Avicenna’s theory of self-awareness. Although Black’s suggestion is


This is stated in the remainder of the very ishāra just quoted (Ishārāt, namat. 3, 132); cf. Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt VIII.6.6–7, 284–285.


In the first person

tentative, I believe it is based on a perspicacious and important insight.59 As we saw above,60 Avicenna introduces the concept of individual meaning in a context that deals with the question of our capacity to know individual entities and to refer to them by means of universal concepts. Little harm will be done by revisiting the central lines: It is impossible for the intelligible properties, however many they are, to be conjoined to the species without an ultimate reference (ishāra) to an individuated meaning, so that the individual thereby subsists in the intellect. For if you said ‘Zayd is the tall one, the writer, the handsome one’, and so forth for as many descriptions as you wish, Zayd’s individuality would not be assigned for you in the intellect. Rather, the meaning, which is put together from the collection of all that, can belong to more than one, but it is made concrete (yu‘ayyinuhu) by existence and by reference (al-ishāra) to an individual meaning, just as you say that he is the son of so-and-so, exists at such-and-such a time, is tall and is a philosopher, and it then happens to be the case that no one shares these attributes with him and also that you had a previous acquaintance with the case by means of the kind of apprehension which points towards (yushāru) [the case] on the basis of sense perception, pointing (yushāru) to the very person and the very moment.61

The intellect can grasp an individual under a universal description only if a reference to an individuated or individual meaning is provided for it. This reference is not described by means of any mental content – unsurprisingly, since that would only constitute further additions to the bundle of universals that will fail to individuate itself, no matter how extensive it becomes. Rather, the reference amounts to an acquaintance with a concrete thing that is made by our perceptual access to the world of enmattered individual entities. Thus, here the term ‘meaning’ is used not in the sense of mental content that is familiar from Avicenna’s psychological texts, but rather to denote the referent of such content in a sense that Avicenna systematically employs in logical semantics.62 In this sense, an individual meaning is a 59

60 62

See Black 2012, sections 1–3. Although I confess that the present account is in many ways indebted to Black’s initial insight, my interpretation of the relevance of the individual meaning to Avicenna’s theory of self-awareness differs from hers in two important respects. First, I do not think Avicenna employed them in his concept of primitive self-awareness; instead, I claim that they first come into play on the level of explicit self-reflection. Secondly, I do not believe they should be understood along the lines of Scotian haecceitates, that is, as singular properties or concepts of singulars. Rather, as I attempt to argue here, the concept of individual meaning denotes a special type of reference, not a special type of content. See Chapter 3.1, 48–50. 61 Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, 70; emphases added. Shifā’: al-‘ibāra I.1, 3: ‘That which is in the soul signifies things, and they are those which are called meanings (ma‘ānī), that is, intentions (maqās.id) of the soul, just as the traces [that is, content in the soul] are also meanings in relation to [linguistic] expressions.’ Cf. I.1, 5; and for discussion, see Black 2010 and Kaukua 2014b.

Self-awareness, reflection and intellection


concrete individual referent to which we attribute universal content but which does not thereby cease to be given to us as a perceived individual. So far so good, but what does our access to enmattered individuals have to do with self-awareness? If anything, the previous chapters should have convinced us that Avicenna is sternly against all attempts to explain our selfawareness by recourse to features of sense perception. My suggestion is, however, that primitive self-awareness provides us with a type of individuating reference that is functionally analogous with, but metaphysically and psychologically different from, the example of the concrete material individual perceived by way of the senses. The idea is, very simply, that the I of primitive self-awareness is the individual meaning, or the point of reference, for the universals employed in an act of reflection. The I as the object of a subject’s reflective intellectual apprehension of herself is individual only because it belongs to the subject’s primitively individual first-personal perspective. As Avicenna’s argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness put it, a subject can recognize herself in reflection only if she already is familiar with herself. Just like the unique spatiotemporal coordinates primitively individuate a materially existing substance and enable it, by means of sense perception, to provide an individuating reference for an intellect’s bundle of universals, the subject’s self-awareness primitively individuates her as an immaterially existing instantiation of the human species and can therefore provide an individual reference for her reflective act and its universal content. Another way of characterizing this is to say that, instead of a special kind of intellectual object, primitive self-awareness provides the concepts employed in reflection with an indexical referent. Consider, again, the case described in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12. My personal awareness of an individual, such as my friend Zayd, as an attributee of certain universal properties that he shares with other individuals, requires that I have an indexical access to the materially existing Zayd. On the most general level, I must be able to point, by means of perception, to a ‘this’ to which I can then attribute the bundle of properties I have in mind, whereby my understanding of the bundle comes to concern an individual human being. The individual meaning only indicates the sort of indexical reference made manifest by utterances such as ‘this here’. The self is available to itself as an individual in an analogous fashion, that is, as something to which one can point by means of the first-personal indexical ‘I’. And just as one can attribute all sorts of properties to a this, the I can be subject to any variety of characterizations which become individual, or have an individual meaning, through this attribution to a primitively individual subject. I can reflect


In the first person

upon myself as an individual fan of the local football team just as I can recognize the individual cheering beside me as another individual fan of the very same team. What is crucial is that in the case both of myself and of my fellow, the property of supporting the local team would remain universal, and indeed shareable by many, were it not for the reference to a primitively individual this or I. It must be emphasized that, according to Avicenna, I do not need explicitly to utter or think the indexical ‘I’ in order to be primitively aware of myself, that is, in order to exist as I – as he has repeatedly asserted, primitive self-awareness is both prior to and independent of reflection. Yet at the same time, Avicenna holds that I can utter or think the first-person indexical, and thereby reflectively focus my attention on myself, at will. Moreover, our applications of the first-personal indexical in reference to ourselves are all but self-evident, neither open to doubt nor in need of learning. This is forcefully suggested by the way in which Avicenna speaks of our intuitive recognition of ourselves as subjects and agents that provide the unifying point of reference for a variety of states and acts. Moreover, the argument from personal identity asserts unequivocally Avicenna’s belief that each of us is intuitively and indubitably aware of a stable I as the substantial core enduring throughout our lives. This indubitability is a natural concomitant of the epistemically primitive nature of self-awareness: just as I cannot not be aware in a first-personal perspective, I cannot fail to recognize that perspective as my own in reflection. This reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of reflection is coherent with his way of dealing with two related questions, namely of whether our primitive self-awareness is reduplicated in the act of reflection, and of whether the inherent potentiality of reflection in every primitively selfaware state is liable to give rise to an actually infinite series of reflective acts. The first question is addressed in the context of a discussion of the distinction between external existence, or existence in concrete (fī al-a‘yān), and mental existence, or existence in the mind (fī al-dhīhn). Having briefly presented the distinction in the paradigmatic case of externally existing individual substances, which when known come to exist in the mind as accidental attributes of the knowing subject, Avicenna turns to the more peculiar case of our reflective awareness of ourselves. Here the distinction between external and mental existence is complicated by the fact that, in both modes of existence, the human subject is immaterial and can therefore be reasonably described as mental. Nevertheless, Avicenna holds that it is still valid to distinguish the subject’s existence as a substance from her existing as an attribute of a knowing substance. This is intimately related

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to our mode of existence as immaterial substances, that is, our selfawareness: A human being may be inattentive to his self-awareness and then reminded of it, but he is not aware of himself twice. As regards awareness of awareness, it may be by acquisition, not by nature.63

In other words, when my primitively self-aware state becomes an object of reflection, it is no longer an act of existence proper to me as a substance and due to me by nature, but a piece of acquired cognitive content and hence an accidental attribute of me. Because of this change, the acquired awareness of my awareness does not result in redoubled self-awareness; rather, I remain aware of a single self in exactly the same sense as before, only now I realize that I was aware of it all along. I do not think Avicenna means that the prior state, in which I was primitively self-aware without paying attention to my awareness, is preserved intact in the posterior act of reflective attention towards it. Rather, his point is that for each human being there is always one and only one primitively self-aware state. Now, an act of reflection involves minimally two states: a prior state which functions as the object of reflection and a present state which is the act of reflecting upon the prior state. If all of the self’s acts are self-aware, then surely the present state of reflection should be such. But if one is ‘not aware of oneself twice’, then the state one is reflecting upon can no longer be self-aware when it has been made an object of reflection. In becoming an object of reflection, the prior state is transformed from a primitively self-aware state to mental content representing such a state. What is then immediately experienced is the act of reflection; if I reflect on my writing, I am no longer simply writing, but reflecting on my writing. Provided I am sufficiently capable of cognitive multitasking, the writing may go on during my reflection, but this does not change the fact that my initial immersion in the act of writing is lost. In this respect it is not correct to say that reflective self-awareness is fundamentally different from primitive self-awareness, because reflection is primitively self-aware as well. It of course has a particular type of object, an act or state indexically attributed to oneself, that sets it apart from most other primitively self-aware states, and this difference entails an epistemic ascent to a higher-order level of consideration in comparison to the state reflected upon, but it does not entail either ascent or descent with regard to 63

Ta‘līqāt 147; emphasis added. Cf. Mubāh.athāt 422, 221 Badawī (VI.435–437, 158 Bīdārfar); 425–426, 222–223 Badawī (VI.444–446, 160–161; and VI.892, 318 Bīdārfar). For a brief discussion, see Black 2008, 79.


In the first person

primitive self-awareness as such. Any reflecting subject is primitively, but not reflectively, aware of herself in her reflective state, and just like any other primitively self-aware state, her reflecting state can in turn become the object of a reflective act of a yet higher order. True, a subject of reflection recognizes herself in the object, when she attributes the state reflected upon to herself as her own past state. This recognition, however, is not immediate but due to a relation of identity (huwīya) which the subject of reflection grasps intuitively as prevailing between herself and the object of her reflection.64 This is neatly in line with Avicenna’s explicit denial of immediate identity between the subject and the object of human intellection in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6.65 If the subject of reflection were primitively self-aware of the subject of the state reflected upon, this denial of identity would be violated. This need not rule out the self-evidentiality of the reflective identification through recognition, something Avicenna explicitly states, but it does entail that the recognition is not immediate. Rather, the relation of identity is an intelligible constituent of the act of reflection, albeit one that is not open to sincere doubt. The second concern, that is, whether the inherent reflexibility of all primitively self-aware states will result in the possibility of an infinitely ascending series of higher-order reflective states, is addressed in Shifā’: alIlāhīyāt V.2: Because it is in the soul’s power to understand, and to understand that it has understood, and to understand that it has understood that it has understood, and to construct relations upon relations, making different relational states for a single thing potentially ad infinitum, it is necessary that there be no end to these intellectual forms that are arranged upon each other, and as a result they will go on infinitely, but in potency, not in actuality.66

The text is unambiguous: there is no preordained limit to the amount of reflective steps that we can possibly take in relation to our mental states and acts. This is a natural consequence of the claim that each self-aware state, that is, each moment in human existence, contains the potency close to actuality for the subject to turn reflectively towards herself. But this infinity of ascending steps is merely potential; it is not possible ever actually to ascend an infinite number of times. Most often this is probably due to 64


For this particular use of the term huwīya, see Ta‘līqāt, 147–148. I realize that this is an anomalous reading of the term, but in this particular context Avicenna contrasts it with ‘otherness’ (ghayrīya), which strongly suggests that the relation of identity is what he has in mind. For the more common uses of huwīya in Avicenna, see Goichon 1938, 411–413. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman. 66 Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.2.8, 160.

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accidental distractions that seize one’s attention, but there is also a more principled reason for the limitation of the number of actual reflective states. Because each reflective ascent is a temporal occurrence, because each human being capable of reflection has a temporal beginning to her existence, and because each mental state is only primitively self-aware in itself, the actual existence of every human being at any given moment will by necessity halt at a finite degree in the scale of higher-order states. This idea becomes clear from Avicenna’s comparison of the potential series of reflective steps with our knowledge of the entailments of the piece of knowledge we are actually considering.67 Suppose I know the quadratic formula, for instance. By knowing the formula I know the solution to every single quadratic equation even though I do not – indeed cannot – thereby consider them all in actuality. In the same way, the possibility of reflective self-awareness is concomitant to every single self-aware act of mine only in the sense that as an immaterial entity I can always turn to consider that I am the one acting. The actualizations of these possibilities must take place successively. This exposition of Avicenna’s concept of reflection gives us a solid basis for investigating the questions and problems concerning self-awareness that are raised in the Mubāh.athāt, a collation of Avicenna’s correspondence with his critically gifted students. This material easily reads like a series of hesitant, often ad hoc reactions to seemingly fundamental problems; indeed, with an exclusive focus on the Mubāh.athāt, one would quite likely end up with a rather dismal assessment of Avicenna’s theory of selfawareness.68 A comprehensive analysis of the Mubāh.athāt material shows that the critical points largely revolve around the difficulties, already familiar to us, that Avicenna faced when attempting to locate the phenomenon of primitive self-awareness in the scheme of the capacities described in his cognitive 67 68

See Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt V.2.8, 160–161. Cf. Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 241–243 Rahman. This is exemplified by Pines 1954, the first serious scholarly attempt at a comprehensive reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness. This pioneering study was largely motivated by ‘Abd alRahmān Badawī’s 1947 publication of his edition of the Mubāh.athāt. Relying extensively on the critical remarks contained therein, Pines arrives at the suggestion that, despite the wealth of his insights, Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness was aporetic, incoherent, and inferior to those of such ancient predecessors as Aristotle and Plotinus. Allegedly, this is because Avicenna modelled his concept of self-awareness on the received account of intellection, which landed him with a load of problems when dealing with self-awareness as it appears on the lower levels of cognition. (Pines 1954, 36, 39, 43.) Although my interpretation is diametrically opposed to Pines’, it must be admitted in his defence that he lacked access to the Ta‘līqāt, another collection of Avicennian Nachlass, which was first edited by Badawī in 1973. Although plenty of material on self-awareness can be derived from the Shifā’ (as recognized in, for instance, Pines 1954, 25, 29–30, 34) and the Ishārāt, the relevant passages in the Ta‘līqāt are quite unique in their explicit emphasis on self-awareness and in the way in which they bring the scattered arguments together to a thematically defined discussion.


In the first person

psychology. Perhaps the most pressing, and lucid, case in point is the following piece of correspondence between Bahmanyār and Avicenna: [Avicenna] was asked: by means of which faculty are we aware of our particular selves (bi ayyi quwwatin nash‘uru bi dhawātinā al-juz’īya)? For the soul’s apprehension concerns meanings, either by means of the intellectual faculty, but particular self-awareness is not understood (al-shu‘ūru bi aldhāti al-juz’īyu laysa huwa yu‘aqalu), or by means of the estimative faculty, but the estimative faculty apprehends meanings connected to what is imagined, and it has been shown that I am aware of myself (annī ash‘ura bi dhātī) even if I am not aware of my organs and do not imagine my body. So he answered: it is clear that the universal meaning is not apprehended by means of a body, and it is clear that the individual meaning,69 which is individuated by hylic accidents – a kind of defined determination (al-qadr) and defined position – is not apprehended by anything other than a body; but it is not clear that the particular is not at all apprehended by anything other than a body or that the particular does not figure in a judgment of the universal; rather when the particular is not individuated by a determination and a position and what embroiders them, nothing prevents that one is aware of that particular,70 and it is not clear that this is impossible in a position. There is nothing to object to [the fact] that the cause of this individual is hyle and something hylic in some manner, when the consequent individuating configuration itself is not hylic but rather one of the configurations that individuate what is not through a body. On the contrary, the intellect or the understanding soul does not apprehend particulars that are individuated by determined hylic configurations. As regards to what is free of that, it may be apprehended, and this is apprehended both when it is peeled from individuating things and [when] the individuating things, taken as universals, are related to it. Separate things are either individuals of a species which are distinguished by properties and the essences of which (dhawātuhā)71 are apprehended as such, or singulars (afrād) the species of which is not divided into individuals (bi mukhas..sas.āt), but the species is in one essence (fī dhātin wāh.idatin) which does not need to be distinguished except by specificity, and so also their essences (dhawātuhā) are apprehended by their specificity. Then here it is to be contemplated whether the first sort are apprehended by their individuality.72


70 71 72

Because of the way in which ‘individual meaning’ (al-ma‘nā al-shakhs.ī) is contrasted with ‘universal meaning’, I believe that in this case the term denotes mental content, albeit one that owes its individuality to the sort of reference we have just discussed. Some manuscripts, including the one Badawī based his edition on, add the specification ‘I presume [that this is] the intellect.’ The word dhāt is here used in the sense ‘the thing itself’ or ‘the very thing’, with a reference to an individual entity. The same holds of the instance of dhāt in the next sentence. Mubāh.athāt 371, 208 Badawī; V.278–281, 117–118 Bīdārfar; for discussion, see Pines 1954, 47–48.

Self-awareness, reflection and intellection


Bahmanyār’s question is unambiguous: how can we explain self-awareness in terms of Avicenna’s cognitive psychology, given that both of the alternatives, intellectual and estimative apprehension, are fundamentally problematic, albeit for different reasons. Estimation necessarily involves perceptual mental content and thereby the body, whereas self-awareness has been shown to be independent of both by means of arguments we, like Bahmanyār, have already discussed at length. Intellection in turn concerns universals, but the self of which each of us is aware is a unique individual. At this stage of investigation, we should expect Avicenna’s answer to be ready and clear: self-awareness is due to neither an estimative nor an intellectual act, but rather constitutes a category of its own which, as the very existence of the cognitive subject, is foundational to and independent of both types of cognition. In this light, the response section of the passage is especially problematic, for although the question is posed in the very terms by means of which Avicenna usually describes primitive selfawareness, his answer unequivocally sets out to attempt a solution in terms of intellection. Avicenna seems to think that if only we can make conceptual room for the intellection of particulars, the question will solve itself. His attempt is thus very close to the account of the individuation of immaterial human substances found in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3: although the self I am aware of is individuated by a bundle of properties that owe their genesis to matter, the properties as such and the self they serve to individuate are immaterial and therefore readily intelligible. It is painfully evident that none of the worries expressed elsewhere are so much as hinted at in Avicenna’s answer. The passage can thus be read as strong counterevidence to our interpretation of self-awareness as primitive or irreducible: as far as texts like this are concerned, when all is said and done, Avicenna seems to have conceived of self-awareness as a quite commonplace act of intellection. However, if we read his response closely, we see that Avicenna does not explicitly claim that self-awareness should be understood as an act of intellection with a certain individual as an object. All he does is entertain the possibility. Since the resulting account is so obviously incoherent with Avicenna’s explicit arguments elsewhere, for instance for the constancy of self-awareness (is not the explicit understanding of oneself as a bundle of properties a rather rare occasion?) and against the reflection-model of selfawareness (how will one recognize the apprehended individual as oneself?), we should be wary of adopting the passage as expressive of Avicenna’s


In the first person

considered view.73 Indeed, the very last sentence of his answer clearly signals that Avicenna hesitates to assert the sketched solution and terminates instead in a problem that is postponed for further consideration. If the attempted solution is close to Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, the problem is an elliptic expression of the contrary insight we found from Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12: in the absence of a primitive factor of individuation analogous to the spatiotemporal co-ordinates afforded by matter, do we have any reason to assume that the immaterial bundle of properties I understand as myself is anything but a bundle of universals? Thus, instead of a straightforward account of self-awareness as due to an act of intellection, we seem to be left with the aporia characterized in the previous chapter, albeit with the difference that self-awareness is now ruled out as a way out and forwards. This hesitation is a recurrent feature in the Mubāh.athāt questions related to self-awareness.74 It may be perceived as a sign of the unease Avicenna felt in the face of the problems an overtly intellectualist account of selfawareness is bound to run into when dealing with corporeal acts and perceptual cognition, that is, with acts and mental states the embodied agents and subjects of which seem quite indubitably to be aware of themselves.75 But although the symptoms are undeniable, different diagnoses of the cause remain possible. First of all, it is not at all clear that the unease was due to Avicenna’s insistent subscription to the view that self-awareness is the result of an intellectual act, and not rather because his new conception of primitive self-awareness lacked a ready-made niche in the received cognitive psychological framework. Secondly, quite regardless of the fact that Avicenna subscribes to a strongly dualist conception of human being, and 73

74 75

The same vagueness shrouds the immediately following question in Mubāh.athāt 372, 208–209 Badawī; V.282–285, 118–119 Bīdārfar (cf. Pines 1954, 50–51). As for Mubāh.athāt 426, 222 Badawī (VI.892, 318 Bīdārfar), another similar passage (cf. Pines 1954, 52–53), it deals not with primitive selfawareness but with our capacity of understanding the human essence (dhāt) of which each of us is an instantiation. The point is that my understanding my own humanity (my own dhāt) differs not in content, but only in reference, from my understanding of the humanity of another human being. Humanity is the same in both cases, and in reflection I attribute it to myself just as I attribute it to another individual in an act constituted by perception and intellection. Its most pronounced expression is Mubāh.athāt 373, 209 Badawī (cf. V.288, 119 Bīdārfar), where Avicenna entertains the possibility that self-awareness is not an act of intellection at all. Pines 1954, 54–55, takes up the question of animal self-awareness (raised in Mubāh.athāt 375, 209 Badawī (V.291–293, 120 Bīdārfar); and 421, 222 Badawī (VI.891, 317–318 Bīdārfar)) as a particularly telling case in point. The question of animal self-awareness, brought up again by Rāzī in his critical commentary to the Ishārāt (Sharh. al-Ishārāt, 122), is complicated and must be set aside for the present. Suffice it to say that I believe the question shows that the sort of self-awareness we have been discussing here is exclusive to immaterial, and hence intellectual, entities. For a more detailed treatment of the question of animal self-awareness, see Kaukua and Kukkonen 2007 and LópezFarjeat 2012.

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thus one that places a decided emphasis on our intellectual capacities, it is not clear that self-awareness as the mode of existence proper to the immaterial aspect of us is incompatible with activity and cognition in or by means of the body. It has been suggested, indeed quite plausibly in the light of such inconsistency, that Avicenna’s view of the cognitive class proper to self-awareness was subject to development throughout his career, and that he may never have managed to arrive at a definite solution.76 If this is the case, the natural question to ask is how we should date texts like the present piece of correspondence with its aporetic conclusion. Do they represent a passing phase in the course of Avicenna’s labour with self-awareness, or are they rather expressive of a mature view? The details of the genesis and dating of the Mubāh.athāt texts are extremely complex, but, in the light of our current knowledge, it seems warranted to hold that the set of questions to which the present one belongs was drafted by Bahmanyār and answered by Avicenna before 1030 and so quite possibly before the excursions on self-awareness in the Ishārāt and the Ta‘līqāt.77 The text may therefore represent a stage in which Avicenna had gained the insights that were to provide the basis of his concept of self-awareness (note the veiled reference to arguments like the flying man at the end of Bahmanyār’s question) but had not yet drawn the conclusions about its immediacy and consequent uniqueness as a mode of cognition that are exemplified in the later works. In any case, regardless of the ultimate order of production of Avicenna’s works, our present knowledge does not warrant us to consider the present text as an expression of Avicenna’s final stand. If we approach the Mubāh.athāt from this perspective, they bear witness to a constant labour in finding a niche for the newly discovered phenomenon of first-personality in the Peripatetic psychological framework, and portray a thinker in a sustained attempt to twist the received concept of intellection as self-intellection to tally with such a narrow concept of selfawareness.78 But although Avicenna may not have been entirely successful, and certainly failed to persuade all his interlocutors, his tentative consideration of the possibility that self-awareness is not an act of intellection at all 76 78

Sebti 2000, 116–117. 77 I infer this on the basis of Reisman 2002, 212, 221–224, 227, 231. Cf. the largely concurring assessment in Sebti 2000, 113–117. It should also be noted that certain postAvicennian developments, such as Suhrawardī’s concept of knowledge as presence and Mullā S·adrā’s identification of knowledge with existence (see Chapters 6.1 and 8.1 below, respectively), can be read as further steps in the pursuit of a concept of awareness that is no longer reducible to the ancient dichotomy between perceptual knowledge of particular objects and intellectual knowledge of universals.


In the first person

may have been positively loaded with sustained consideration.79 While it is true that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness is based on the view that an individual human dhāt is an immaterial substance and therefore an intellectual entity, the texts we have discussed in extenso strongly suggest that that substance’s awareness of itself is not an ordinary act of intellection. If our reconstruction of Avicennian self-awareness as first-personality is anywhere close to the mark, it is rather an inherent feature of all human experience from the highest echelons of intellection down to the lowest strata of sense-perception. All of these drastically different experiences, as so many accidental determinations of an individual entity, are always given as mine to the respective individual, or, to put it another way, the individual will always undergo or live through them as an I. In this limited respect, there is no difference whatsoever between her various states: as far as my primitive self-awareness is concerned, it is the same regardless of whether I am engaged in physical labour, a rapturous erotic act or the contemplation of the law of non-contradiction. Explicit reflective intellection of oneself is an altogether different phenomenon, but also one that Avicenna explicitly distinguishes from the more primitive type of self-awareness.80 As we’ve learned, reflective self-awareness is an act of intellection, which presupposes prior familiarity with oneself as its condition of possibility. Hence, primitive self-awareness as this familiarity must be distinguished from reflection, just as Avicenna repeatedly does. In the end, it has to be admitted that, despite its coherence, our reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness remains a rational reconstruction, pieced together from somewhat (though not entirely) fragmented pieces of discussion. It remains a fact that Avicenna never explicitly defines his concept of self-awareness, nor does he devote a single chapter of his psychological works to the phenomenon. At the same time, the reconstruction is hardly marred by a shortage of material, and as I hope to have shown, the material is not only ample, but highly coherent as well. Finally, many of the arguments that are presented separatim in Avicenna’s other works were in fact brought together in the Ta‘līqāt. 79


Here I refer especially to passages like Mubāh.athāt 373, 209 Badawī (cf. V.288, 119 Bīdārfar): ‘It may be that “intellection” [in the sense of that] which grasps intelligibles is not applicable to the purity of complete self-awareness (mujarrada al-shu‘ūri al-mujmali bi al-dhāt) but comes after that. That is worth thinking about.’ Pace Pines 1954, 46. The distinction seems to have been there in some of the texts circulated under the rubric of Mubāh.athāt (cf. VI.549, 185 Bīdārfar), but apparently not in the recension represented by the manuscript Badawī used for his edition.

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As we have seen, the Avicennian shu‘ūr bi al-dhāt alludes to the firstpersonal perspective inherent in all our experience. As such, it is the mode in which we exist as immaterial substances. The way in which we have seen Avicenna develop this insight has two consequences, which may be relatively unproblematic, even trivial, in their Avicennian setting, but which become problems and points of critique for his followers whom we will next turn to discuss. For this reason, these consequences merit being briefly spelled out. First of all, Avicennian self-awareness is static and allows no room for development. Since self-awareness is our birthright, it cannot be relied on to make sense of the process of acquisition of our second perfection, the cognitive goal proper to the human species. Our self-awareness notwithstanding, we will still be imbued with the task of developing our characters by consistently doing the right things and making the right choices as well as labouring in the pursuit of knowledge. But regardless of the eventual degree of our success, we will taste its fruits as subjects aware of ourselves in exactly the same sense as when we first came to be. I will be no more and no less an I when I have reached the degree of a virtuous sage than I was as a peckish lad. I may be able to pay attention to my being an I, to understand why that is the case, and to fully grasp and attempt to realize the sort of duties towards myself it entails, but the fact itself of being an I is not changed at any stage of this development. Intimately related to this point is a second one, namely that the self indicated by the phenomenon of primitive self-awareness is a similarly static entity, that is, an Aristotelian substance. As the argument from personal identity in the sixth book of the Mubāh.athāt makes particularly explicit, the human self remains immune to change throughout the course of its existence, despite the fluctuation of its attributes. As substances, Avicennian selves do come to be, but they are not subject to any kind of alteration, change or development in the proper senses of these terms. In the subsequent centuries, both of these features come to be fiercely contested. Intriguingly enough, however, these critical moves are made in a framework that is entirely based on Avicenna’s ways of describing selfawareness and of arguing for its primitivity. I believe that a close study of the reception of this part of the Avicennian heritage will further corroborate the reconstruction proposed here.

chapter 5

Self-awareness without substance: from Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī to Suhrawardī

In many ways, the twelfth century CE is decisive for the solidification of the Islamic philosophical scene, duly characterized as post-Avicennian. Instigated by Abū H · āmid al-Ghazālī’s (d. 1111 CE) critical appropriation and Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī’s (d. 1164/5) radical scrutiny of Avicenna’s philosophy, two closely related, if fundamentally different ways of applying this heritage emerge towards the turn of the century, both of which would prove formative for the subsequent centuries. These are Fakhr al-Dīn alRāzī’s systematic theology and Shihāb al-Dīn Yah.yā al-Suhrawardī’s ishrāqī, or illuminationist, school of philosophy.1 Although many authors of the period address Avicenna’s remarks on selfawareness, it is in Suhrawardī’s thought that their developmental potential is most fully accomplished. Information about Suhrawardī’s youth is scarce, but we do know that he was born in 1154, possibly in the village of Suhraward in northwestern Iran, and acquired an education in philosophy and theology from a number of notable teachers of his time. After a period of itinerant existence in Syria and Anatolia, we find him in Aleppo from 1183 onwards, gathering a circle of notable students about him. One of these was the young prince al-Malik al-Z·āhir, recently appointed as the ruler of the city by his father, the great Saladin. This seems to have aroused the ire and jealousy of Aleppo jurists who complained to Saladin. The conflict with crusaders growing increasingly tense, the leader ordered his son to execute Suhrawardī, which the latter eventually submitted to in 1191, though not without reluctance.2 Despite his early demise, Suhrawardī left a considerable corpus, the most important texts of which are often divided into three main classes: (1) mystical allegories, (2) Peripatetic philosophical treatises, most importantly 1 2

For a general account of the early reception of Avicenna, see Eichner 2009, 3–95; and for more specific studies, cf. Wisnovsky 2004a; Shihadeh 2005; Eichner 2011; and Treiger 2012. Walbridge and Ziai 1999, xv–xvii; Walbridge 2005, 201.


Self-awareness without substance


the Talwīh.āt and the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt, and (3) ishrāqī treatises, 3 in particular the H · ikma al-ishrāq. The question of the exact relations of importance between these different types of texts is a matter of debate. Some scholars, most notably Henry Corbin, perceive the mystical narratives as the culmination of Suhrawardī’s thought and read the ishrāqī treatises as their systematic counterpart, while assigning the so-called Peripatetic works a status of secondary importance.4 Other scholars have argued for a much stronger connection between the different types of philosophical treatises. According to Hossein Ziai, ‘the impetus behind the composition of each of these works was nothing other than the systematic presentation of the philosophy of illumination. This means that when Suhrawardī states that the Intimations [al-Talwīh.āt], for example, is written according to the “Peripatetic method”, it is not an independent work written solely as an exercise in Peripatetic philosophy, nor does it represent a Peripatetic “period” in Suhrawardī’s life and writings. Rather, it points to the fact that certain parts or dimensions of the philosophy of illumination are accepted Peripatetic teachings.’5 By the same token, it has been argued that instead of a culmination of the Suhrawardian corpus, the mystical narratives amount to little more than introductory treatises designed for students who are not yet able to savour the technical and conceptually rigorous argumentation proper to the philosophical works.6 I see no reason to hide my sympathy with the latter line of interpretation. Had the Peripatetic works been merely propaedeutic in character, why should Suhrawardī have spent so much precious paper and ink on them – particularly in comparison to the decidedly less imposing volume of the H · ikma al-ishrāq? Indeed, why did he choose to write two such introductory works when the Talwīh.āt, for instance, would alone seem to have been perfectly apposite to the task? Furthermore, recent work which situates Suhrawardī in the context of the twelfth-century reception of Avicenna has shed some direly needed light on the question of how the discussion in the Peripatetic treatises paves the way for Suhrawardī’s transition to the overtly 7 ishrāqī philosophy of the H · ikma al-ishrāq. Since the Talwīh.āt and the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt are comparably closer to the terminological framework of Avicennian philosophy, they provide us with invaluable evidence for assessing why and to what extent the H · ikma al-ishrāq departs 3 4


Walbridge and Ziai 1999, xviii. For a voice of concern, cf. Marcotte 2012. See, for instance, Corbin 1971, vol. II, 187–200. This view is manifested in Corbin’s decision to omit both the logical and the physical sections of the Talwīh.āt and the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt from his edition of these texts. Ziai 1990, 10–11. 6 Walbridge 2000, 109–112. 7 A prime case in point is Eichner 2011.


Self-awareness without substance

from that tradition. This interpretative stance will, I hope, be amply substantiated also by the following two chapters.


Avicennian material in Suhrawardī

From both the historical and the systematic point of view, the most interesting aspect of Suhrawardī’s treatment of self-awareness is his novel application of the phenomenon in introducing his alternatives to the Peripatetic concepts of knowledge and existence. However, to bring this aspect of his thought into clear focus, we must delineate and chart the ground he shares with Avicenna, the epitome of that tradition. Fortunately for this concern, Suhrawardī’s arguments for the constancy and immediacy of self-awareness are for the most part familiar from the previous chapter, which strongly suggests that Suhrawardī is indeed referring to exactly the same phenomenon as Avicenna. Furthermore, on the occasions when he ventures beyond his predecessor, he articulates even more explicitly the Avicennian thesis that self-awareness amounts to bare first-personality as an irreducible and necessary constituent of human experience. When one sets out to read the section on the rational soul in the psychology of the Talwīh.āt, one cannot fail to notice a close resemblance to Avicenna’s method of procedure in al-Ishārāt wa al-tanbīhāt. Just like his predecessor, Suhrawardī initiates the discussion of the properly human aspect of the soul with the thought experiment of the flying man: Is it not so that you are not absent from yourself (dhātika) in the two states of your sleep and wakefulness, your sobriety and intoxication? If you were supposed [to be] created all at once to a perfection of your intellect, and your sense were not preoccupied with anything from you or from another, and the members [were] extended in the air so that they would not touch, you would ignore everything but your thatness (annīyatika). Thus, you will not have acquired either bodies or accidents when they were not included in your self (dhātika) which you understand without them [and] without the need of a medium, or a corporeal indication or notification, and so you know for certain about your self (ma‘arifatuka li dhātika) that it is incorporeal.8

The two examples of sleep and intoxication give away Suhrawardī’s immediate source, and he follows Avicenna in all the essential aspects of the thought experiment. The conclusion is just as familiar: because selfawareness can be there in the absence of the awareness of one’s body or any 8

Talwīh.āt II.4.3, 155–156 Habibi; 337–338 Ziai and Alwishah. Cf. Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 119, in Chapter 4.2, 80.

Avicennian material in Suhrawardī


other cognitive object, it cannot be based on or brought about by anything else. Two signs of departure from Avicenna are Suhrawardī’s tacit introduction of terminology related to his own concept of knowledge as presence (‘you are not absent (lā taghību) from yourself’) and the increase in the argument’s demonstrative power (‘you know for certain (darūrīya) ˙ of the about your self that it is incorporeal’),9 but since these aspects passage are intimately related to Suhrawardī’s original application of selfawareness, which we will discuss below, we will have to set them aside for the time being. In the remainder there is little that we have not already encountered in Avicenna. If anything, Suhrawardī’s formulation of the flying man is even more elliptic than the already condensed version of the Ishārāt, and he seems to direct no extended attention at the phenomenon the argument builds upon; in fact, one could argue that Suhrawardī’s terminology is less indicative of first-personality than that of Avicenna. However, Suhrawardī dovetails the passage with a sceptical question that we cannot find in Avicenna and that gives away the clarity of his grasp of the argument’s basis. Question: I have come to know myself (‘araftu dhātī) by means of this act, and so it is a medium. Answer: In your supposition you were divested of your act, and so there is no medium. Question: This supposition is an act, and so it is a medium. Answer: It is an omission of an act, or rather it is an idea, and when you come across it, you come across the one having the idea (dhā al-khat.ra) behind it and known before it, not by means of it, and that is your self (dhātuka).10

Suhrawardī has his interlocutor raise the question of whether the flying man itself, as a thought experiment, first brings self-awareness about, and if it does, whether this does not constitute a problem for the claim that it is immediate and not acquired. Although Suhrawardī’s answer is rather condensed, it belies a solid grasp of the Avicennian method of reminding. Although the flying man stages our awareness of ourselves in a manner that forces it into the focus of our attention, it thereby only enables the recognition of what must have already been there. Supposing oneself in the situation of the flying man is a very peculiar operation of thought, a most 9 10

The latter aspect is even more pronounced in Ibn Kammūna’s thirteenth-century commentary on the Talwīh.āt (Muehlethaler 2009). Talwīh.āt II.4.3, 156 Habībī; 340 Ziai and Alwishah.


Self-awareness without substance

unlikely ‘idea’ (khat.ra), but its peculiarity lies precisely in the fact that it is designed to foreground the subject that has the idea (dhū al-khat.ra), which cannot be supposed to be generated by the idea it has. If this interpretation of Suhrawardī’s dense little dialogue is correct, he had an accurate grasp of the basis of the flying man: the thought experiment is a means of paying attention to something that tends to elude our consideration but is constantly given to each of us in perfectly commonplace experience. If the main purpose of the Talwīh.āt was to present the outlines of the Peripatetic system of thought, it can be asked whether Suhrawardī is merely using the Ishārāt as an authoritative source of the traditional doctrine without himself subscribing to its contents. Such concerns are undermined by the same section of the Ishārāt being mined for arguments in Suhrawardī’s positive exposition of his alternative system. Consider, for example, how the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness is articulated in the H · ikma al-ishrāq: The thing that subsists by itself and apprehends itself (al-qā’ima bi dhātihi al-mudrika li dhātihi) does not know itself by means of an image of itself in itself (lā ya‘alamu dhātahu bi mithālin li dhātihi fī dhātihi) . . . if [that] were by means of an image that it does not know to be an image of itself (li nafsihi), it would not know itself (nafsahu); if it does know that it is an image of itself (nafsihi), it must have already known itself (qad ‘alima nafsahu) without the image. How could it not, when it is not conceivable that the thing knows itself (ya‘alama nafsahu) by means of something added to itself (‘alā nafsihi), for [that] would be an attribute of it? Thus, when it judges that every attribute added to itself (‘alā dhātihi), whether knowledge or something else, belongs to itself (li dhātihi), it has already known itself (qad ‘alima dhātahu) prior to and apart from all the attributes, and so it has not known itself (lā yakūna qad ‘alima dhātahu) by means of the added attributes.11

The alien context notwithstanding,12 the argument is clearly familiar. If we suppose that self-awareness is due to an awareness of a special type of object, here an image of oneself, we will come across the problem of how to explain the recognition of the image as an image of oneself. Since there is no non-arbitrary way of introducing the recognition in the case of some images but not others, we have to suppose that the recognition is based on a more basic familiarity with oneself. Suhrawardī sums this up in a general claim: 11 12

H · I II.1.5.115, 80 Walbridge and Ziai; 111 Corbin. In this section of the H · ikma al-ishrāq Suhrawardī is engaged in the characterization of the concept of pure or incorporeal light by means of Avicennian arguments for the immediacy of self-awareness. For a discussion of this material in its context, see Chapter 6.2, 146–154.

Avicennian material in Suhrawardī


any image or attribute that I recognize as my own, as attributable or belonging to me, has to be qualified as mine to begin with. We have seen Avicenna claim that this mineness or first-personality inherent to our attributes is a constant feature of our experience. As a consequence, it cannot be based on anything that we can be intermittently aware of, such as our bodies. This basic difference between the intermittency and constancy respective to the awareness proper to bodies on the one hand and to selves on the other is repeated by Suhrawardī immediately after the above argument against the reflection-model of self-awareness: You are never absent from yourself and your apprehension of it (anta lā taghību ‘an dhātika wa ‘an idrākika lahā), and since the apprehension cannot be by means of a form or an addition, you do not need in your apprehension of yourself anything other than your self, which appears to itself, or is not absent from itself (fa lā tah.tāja fī idrākika li dhātika ilā ghayri dhātika al-z· āhirati li nafsihā aw al-ghayri al-ghā’ibati ‘an nafsihā). Thus, your apprehension of it must be due to itself as such (fa yajibu an yakūna idrākuka lahā li nafsihā kamā hiya),13 and you are never absent from yourself or any part of yourself (lā taghību qat.t.u ‘an dhātika wa juz’i dhātika). What your self is absent from (mā taghību dhātuka ‘anhu), such as organs like the heart, the liver and the brain . . . do not belong to that of you which apprehends, and so that of you which apprehends is not by means of an organ . . . since otherwise you would not be absent from it insofar as you have enduring self-awareness that does not cease (kāna laka shu‘ūrun bi dhātika mustamarrun lā yazūlu).14

Again, the metaphysical context does not betray the familiarity of this series of statements, which reads readily as a paraphrase of the central insights behind the lengthy excursion on self-awareness from the Ta‘līqāt. Suhrawardī’s emphasis on the constancy and continuity of self-awareness suggests that he is aware of Avicenna’s striking and potentially counterintuitive claim that we are always aware of ourselves, and that he knowingly adopts the Avicennian concept of self-awareness. This is further corroborated by a related argument, characterized as a reminder (dhikrun tanbīhī), in the psychological section of the Talwīh.āt. Your skin is such that you have the power to change it while aware of the persistence of your thatness (annīyatika), and the same holds of your flesh and your bone, and so they have no share in it. You have understood it while 13


I read idrākuka (instead of idrākuhā as preferred by both Corbin and Walbridge–Ziai) which is supported by some manuscripts and is not as awkward as the alternative reading. Insofar as ‘you’ is synonymous with ‘your self’, as is the case here, there is no difference in meaning. H · I II.1.5.116, 80 Walbridge and Ziai; 112 Corbin.


Self-awareness without substance ignoring the heart, the brain and the liver, which are known to you through dissection; something has occurred to your mind about them once or twice every year, and you are not through what is distant from your thatness, and so what is not included in it in the intellect is not constitutive of it. Thus, [the] you behind the whole is [such] that it is a self (anta warā’a al-jamī‘i annahā dhātun) that exceeds the confusion of the ignorant about it; it is a substance which we rightfully call ‘the rational soul’.15

Just as in the passage from the H · ikma al-ishrāq, Suhrawardī here makes the distinction between the self and any of its cognitive objects by means of the constancy and intermittency respective to them. If anything, this time the connection to Avicenna is even more pronounced, for both the argument and the context in which it is embedded read naturally as a paraphrase of a passage from Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7.16 What is more, the argument is followed by one based on another aspect of difference between our awareness of our bodies and our selves, and with an equally Avicennian provenance. If nothing has dissolved from your body and the nourishing [faculty] has produced what it has produced so that the volume of your body has grown very large up to what you are familiar with, or up to the position of the resting [faculty], and if dissolution is then asserted and you are aware of the persisting heat in decomposition, corruption and other causes, then will you not be another self (dhāt) every year, or a self whose thatness is diminished (aw dhātun muntaqis.atu annīyatihā)? Or is it a self that does not dissolve? Thus, it is not embodied; I have reminded you! Be reminded that it is a divine fire, undescended, exalted above both impression [in] matter and being the same as the temperament.17

This argument relies on the interlocutor’s intuitive certainty of the endurance of her self through time despite the indubitable changes that take place in her body. As we recall, Avicenna had brought forth the very same intuition as a response to Bahmanyār’s dissatisfaction with the flying man. And even though nothing in Suhrawardī’s formulation gives away the Mubāh.athāt as his immediate source, all the ingredients of the present argument were already laid on the table by other Avicennian texts. It is also worth pointing out that Suhrawardī briefly resorts to illuminationist terminology in spelling out the dualist conclusion of the argument. This suggests, if somewhat obliquely, that he perceived a connection between 15 16 17

Talwīh.āt II.4.3, 156 Habībī; 342 Ziai and Alwishah. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 255–256 Rahman. Talwīh.āt II.4.3, 157 Habībī; 342–343 Ziai and Alwishah; cf. H · I II.1.5.116, 80 Walbridge and Ziai; 112 Corbin.

Avicennian material in Suhrawardī


this aspect of Peripatetic psychology and his own alternative system of philosophy. Let us finally consider another argument based on our awareness of our enduring selves. This time the context is epistemological and the argument original to Suhrawardī, notwithstanding that it figures in an argument for an entirely Avicennian thesis and has an equally Avicennian basis in its use of self-awareness. Suhrawardī now relies on the phenomenon in a piece of evidence brought forth to refute the identity or unity theory of cognition. He begins by arguing that if the identity theory is correct and the subject of knowledge indeed becomes the known form, or inversely, if the known form is assimilated into the subject, then there remains no sense in which we can speak of cognition anymore; rather, all we have is the subject or the form (depending on which of them becomes the other) as it was before the identity. On the other hand, if both remain, there is no identity.18 This Avicennian case19 is then supported by a corroborating piece of evidence: Then the self-aware substance of you (al-jawharu al-shā‘iru bi dhātihi minka) is not such that it is renewed every moment, but it is a single thing which endures before, with and after the form, and the form is something that occurs while it endures. Thus, you are you with the apprehension and without the apprehension, and so there is no meaning for unification.20

Self-awareness is here used to substantiate a commonplace Peripatetic claim: a necessary condition for understanding any kind of process is that we are aware of an unchanging substance in relation to which the process takes place or to which the process somehow belongs. To take learning as an example, I as the subject of learning must not be replaced when I come to know what I did not know before, for were that not the case, whom could we say to have learned anything thereby? I must be I in some unchanging sense with and without any attribute of mine, such as the knowledge I have managed to acquire. This last argument therefore highlights the factor that is common to all four types of arguments we have cursorily analysed, namely that they all hinge on the same phenomenon. It shows that the self and its awareness of itself can be distinguished from its awareness of objects or attributes by which it is qualified, and, as became clear from Suhrawardī’s consideration of the intricacies of the flying man as well as from the contrast he drew between the endurance of the self and the fluctuation of the body, self18 20

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 474. 19 See Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman. Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 474–475.


Self-awareness without substance

awareness, in an immutable sense, is attached as a necessary constituent to any awareness of objects. Thus, even without resorting to as laborious an argument as we did in the previous chapter, I dare propose that the requirements these arguments amass on the concept of self-awareness that figures in them forcefully point towards the view that Suhrawardī adopts the Avicennian concept of self-awareness in the sense reconstructed above. In other words, for Suhrawardī just as for Avicenna, self-awareness amounts to bare first-personality, or the simple fact that all we are aware of is given to us in a first-personal perspective. This is underlined by a conceptual distinction between the self-aware subject and any object it is aware of to which Suhrawardī consistently sticks throughout his philosophical works. Let us consider two examples, the first from the already familiar section on the rational soul from the Talwīh.āt: Every corpus (jirm) and accident in it of your body (badanika) and others is referred to from your perspective by its being an it (mushārun ilayhi min jihatika bi annahu huwa), and whatever is referred to from your perspective by its being an it is distinct from you by being different from both you as a whole21 and [any] part of you; thus, every corpus and accident in it is distinct like that. Since you are distinct, you are not them as a whole, for not a part of them exists for you (li ‘adami juz’īyatihā laka); thus, your self (dhātuka) is incorporeal altogether and not merely in some respect.22

Unlike ourselves, each object we are aware of appears to us, or ‘from our perspective’, as an ‘it’, something in front of our regard to which we can refer ostensively by means of the third-person indexical pronoun. Since all bodies are given to us in this manner, Suhrawardī believes that the different mode of givenness of ourselves allows us to conclude that our selves are not bodies. The argument is not entirely without parallel in Avicenna’s psychological works; one is reminded especially of the sustained claim in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7 that our intuitive use of the first-personal indexical is an indication of our incorporeality.23 Moreover, we found a similar distinction in the Risāla al-adh.awīya fī al-ma‘ād.24 However, Suhrawardī’s consistent ˙ reliance on the distinction is without parallel in his predecessor. The novelty of this move is particularly clear in the following passage from the H · ikma al-ishrāq: 21

22 23 24

I read kullika with Habībī instead of the dhātika in Ziai and Alwishah, because it fits better with the immediately following juz’ika, ‘part of you’. I take it as obvious that the reading in Ziai and Alwishah is perfectly compatible with my interpretation of the passage as a whole. Talwīh.āt II.4.3, 156 Habībī; 341 Ziai and Alwishah. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 256–257 Rahman; see Chapter 4.1, 66–71. Avicenna, al-Risāla al-adh.awīya IV, 127–128; see Chapter 4.1, 79. ˙

Avicennian material in Suhrawardī


The thing that subsists by itself and apprehends itself does not know itself by means of an image of itself in itself, for if its knowledge were by means of an image and if the image of its I-ness (anā’īya) is not [the I-ness], [the image] would be an it in relation to [the I-ness], but then what is apprehended would be the image, and as a consequence, apprehension of I-ness would be identical to apprehension of what is an it (yakūna idrāku al-anā’īyati huwa bi ‘aynihi idrāka mā huwa huwa), and apprehension of self would be identical with apprehension of another (yakūna idrāku dhātihā bi ‘aynihi idrāka ghayrihā), which is absurd, unlike in the case of external [things], where the image and what is that for it are both an it (al-mithāla wa mā lahu dhālika kullāhumā huwa).25

Suhrawardī’s argument is designed to refute the claim that self-awareness is due to the cognition of a specific object, here an image (mithāl) representing a subject to itself. As such, the argument is clear enough. But the terms in which Suhrawardī stages it are of prime importance for our topic, for here we find the object of cognition explicitly distinguished from its counterpart, the subject. Any object will be given as an it facing our attentive regard, whereas the subject will be given to itself as an I (anā). From this first-person indexical Suhrawardī derives the abstract noun ‘I-ness’ to single out the mode of being proper to a cognitive subject. Having made this categorical distinction, he can rephrase Avicenna’s argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness in more general terms: it is not possible to proceed from the awareness of any object or it, however specific we suppose it to be to the subject in question, to an awareness of the subject, an I or me. In this respect self-awareness is fundamentally different from awareness of objects, for as Suhrawardī’s last clause states, nothing prevents a representational relation between an image appearing to the mind and the thing it is an image of (‘what is that for it’, that is, what the image is an image of), because both the image and its referent exist in the third person, each being an it. I would like to claim that Suhrawardī’s introduction of the abstract noun derived from the first-person indexical anā in an argument that is in clear and considerable debt to Avicenna supports my reconstruction of Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness in the previous chapter. The new term signals that by the end of the twelfth century the discussion of selfawareness had become a firm enough fixture in the philosophical tradition to warrant the coinage of a novel highly technical term.26 Let us now shift our focus to material which shows that this part of the Avicennian heritage was still very much in formation. 25 26

H · I II.1.5.115, 80 Walbridge and Ziai; 111 Corbin; cf. Mashāri‘ III.7.1.208, 484. Cf. also the parallel passages in the Persian Partaw-nāma: III.28, 24–25, and V.43, 38–39.


Self-awareness without substance


Substanceless self-awareness

As we have seen, Avicenna considered self-awareness to be a potent pointer towards the human being’s existence and subsistence independent of her body. In Avicenna’s metaphysics, this amounts to the view that the entity which functions as a soul in relation to the human body is an immaterial substance, for an entity that subsists by itself is by definition a substance. Avicenna does not dwell on the basis of his inference at any great length, presumably because he saw no need to reassess the foundational role of substance in Peripatetic metaphysics and therefore considered the conclusion of the soul’s substantiality to be a natural outcome of its incorporeality. This is corroborated by his summary account of the different kinds of substances in the metaphysical section of the Shifā’: [E]very substance either is or is not a body, and if it is not a body, either it is a part of a body or it is not a part of a body but rather altogether separate from bodies . . . If it is separate, it is not a part of a body, and then it either has a connection of some governance to bodies in terms of motion, and we call it soul, or it is free from matters in every respect, and we call it intellect.27

Once that which functions as a soul in the human body is established to exist as a subject that is aware of itself independently of its body, its classification within this remarkably unequivocal metaphysical scheme is a matter of course.28 But regardless of how innocent the move from incorporeal self-awareness to the self’s substantiality may have seemed to Avicenna, it was questioned by Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī in his highly original, and equally critical, Kitāb al-mu‘tabar: [P]eople use expressions in their conversations each according to what he means. No one means by his expression what he does not conceive of and grasp in his mind. No one says ‘my soul’ (nafsī) or ‘your soul’ in a conversation to refer to anything but his self (dhātihi) or his reality (h.aqīqatihi). If he says ‘my soul rejoices’ ( farih.at nafsī) or ‘your soul is suffering’ (ta’allamat nafsuka), there is no difference for him between that and his saying ‘I rejoice’ ( farih.tu) or ‘you are suffering’ (ta’allamta). Similarly, he says ‘my soul knows’ and ‘[my soul] is ignorant’ as if he were saying ‘I know’ or ‘I am ignorant’ – there is no difference for him between his saying ‘my soul’ or ‘my self’ (dhātī) and his saying ‘I’ (anā) . . .This is the correct understanding of people’s uttering the expression ‘soul’ in their conversations. If this


Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt II.1.10, 48.


Cf. also Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 125, 132–133.

Substanceless self-awareness


expression were said against the first two [ways of] understanding,29 it would be said in truth which convinces them both of this understanding by argument and evidence (bi h.ujjatin wa bayān). When a human being grasps this meaning from the expression ‘soul’, he does not thereby know whether the soul is the entire body, or one of its internal or external parts which differs from it in nature, or an accident in the body, or whether it is an incorporeal substance. Rather, most of them refer by means of this expression, and use it in their conversation to refer to a grasp of themselves (mafhūmin bi ‘aynihi), and they do not thereby consider or think about any of that. Thus, it is proper that this is the first grasp of this expression, I mean the expression ‘soul’, and according to this grasp it is evidence of existence for everyone uttering this expression. Thus, not a single human being needs an argument to assert the existence of his soul. Who would doubt that he exists so that this would be shown to him by means of an argument? How could this not be the case when according to every human being nothing is more evident than that, I mean more evident than the existence of his self (dhātihi)? Similarly, he does not need to be shown that another human being has a soul or a self (nafsan ay dhātan), which is his itness (huwīyatuhu) and thatness (annīyatuhu), even though he does need to be shown what his existing self or soul is (mā dhātuhu wa nafsuhu mawjūda) and what another person’s self (dhāt) is.30

In this perspicacious analysis of common language utterances expressive of the Avicennian phenomenon of self-awareness, Abū al-Barakāt questions the great Peripatetic’s claim that the connection between the incorporeal substance of dualist psychology and the I one is constantly aware of is selfevident. Rather, he claims, no man in the street will feel compelled to commit either to the hylomorphic theory of the soul as the enmattered form of the body or to the dualist notion of the self as an independent entity that acts by means of the body but does not exist in it. Although the analysis presented in support of this claim seems to be motivated by the ambiguity of the Arabic nafs, which is both a common language reflexive noun and a technical term in psychology, we should pay careful attention to its clear and precise characterization of what the common language term expresses. Abū al-Barakāt states that in common use nafs signals the speaker’s awareness of his individual existence, that is, of the fact that he exists (his annīya or thatness) as an individual (his huwīya, itness or heness) – all terms that had 29


This is a reference to the preceding context where Abū al-Barakāt has first introduced the hylomorphic notion of soul as a form that functions as the first perfection of a potentially living body and then the Avicennian idea that the soul is an immaterial substance which animates the body. See Baghdādī, Mu‘tabar: al-‘ilm al-t.abī‘ī VI.1, II.298–300. Baghdādī, Mu‘tabar: al-‘ilm al-t.abī‘ī VI.1, II.300–301.


Self-awareness without substance

figured prominently in Avicenna’s discussion of self-awareness.31 The target of the critique is therefore clear: the phenomenon of self-awareness that Avicenna appeals to, although quite uncontroversial as such, simply does not have sufficient persuasive power in regard to the question about the proper category and correct metaphysical classification of the self. To put it another way, the self-evidentiality and indubitability of one’s existence notwithstanding, it fails to give away what it is that exists thereby. A similar point is raised by another critical commentator, the famous theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, in his al-Mabāh.ith al-mashriqīya. The following passages are from a chapter that addresses arguments for and against the view that the human soul is an incorporeal substance. Fourth, substance is a genus for what is under it, and so if the soul is a substance, knowledge of its substantiality will be intuitive (badīhīyan) and occur without acquisition, but the consequence is false, and the premise likewise.32

This dense argument against the substantiality of the soul is based on the Avicennian claim of the soul’s transparency to itself: if the soul is constantly aware of itself, and if it is a substance when considered in itself independent of its relation to the body, then surely it should be aware of its own substantiality just as incontestably as it is aware of itself. However, since substantiality is not intuitively evident in the soul’s awareness of itself, the soul is not a substance. Although the premise that the soul’s self-awareness does not give away its substantiality is familiar from Abū al-Barakāt, he never drew the conclusion presented here but rather intended to make the point that the substance dualist view requires arguments that go beyond the phenomenon of selfawareness. Rāzī’s defence of the soul’s substantiality elaborates on the distinction between self-awareness and substantiality along similar lines. [T]he master [that is, Avicenna] has said that we only know of the soul that it is something governing the body, but as regards the quiddity of that thing, it is unknown, and the substance essential to that quiddity (al-jawharu al-dhātīyu li tilka al-māhīya) is not grasped to be something which governs the body, and so what constitutes it as a substance is not known to us, and what is not known to us constitutes the substance, and therefore the obscurity remains. Someone may say that according to the above, my knowledge of my soul (‘ilmī bi nafsī) does not occur by acquisition, and so either I do not know my 31 32

See, for instance, Avicenna, Ta‘līqāt 160–161; Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1, 16 Rahman; V.7, 253 Rahman. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.246.

Substanceless self-awareness


soul except insofar as it has a relation to my body, or I know its reality, and the first is false, for it has been established above that my knowledge of my soul is prior to my knowledge of its relation to my body. Moreover, how could this statement be sound from someone who says that my knowledge of my soul is identical to my soul (nafsu nafsī) and that it is always present (h.ādir) in act? It is amazing that someone says something like these two ˙ statements and then neglects their incoherence, albeit not affirmatively. The sound answer is to say that substantiality is not one of the essential things (al-umūri al-dhātīya), and because of that it can remain unknown as has been shown.33

The passage begins with a paraphrase of the situation in which Avicenna introduces the flying man in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1.34 We know that the soul exists from its action in the body it animates, but we lack information about the entity itself that functions as a soul, that is, whether or not that entity is an incorporeal substance independent of its relation to the body. The counterargument that accuses Avicenna of incoherence is somewhat less clear. The idea seems to be that the two statements that my self-awareness is constant and that I am my self-awareness, when taken together, amount to the claim that the self is fully transparent to itself. This, however, is in blatant contradiction with the confession that we lack knowledge of whether the self is a substance or not. The particularly puzzling feature in the accusation is that it seems to all but ignore the argument of the flying man which is precisely designed to indicate the human soul’s substantiality on the basis of its awareness of itself.35 But regardless of this puzzle, Rāzī’s defence is unambiguous: substantiality is not self-evidently given in self-awareness because it is accidental to the phenomenon. This is a striking claim and an obvious departure from the Avicennian theory it allegedly defends. Although Rāzī’s statement seems to be instigated by Abū al-Barakāt’s critical insight, as well as his own materialist theory of the human soul,36 he takes the idea a step further, for instead of merely questioning the demonstrative force of self-awareness in the question of 33 35


Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.246–247. 34 Cf. Chapter 2.1. Perhaps the accusation is based on the epistemological status of the reminder, which is perceived to be inferior to that of a demonstration proper. If self-awareness is as pervasive and immediate as Avicenna claims, surely our substantiality too should be indubitable. This would be incompatible with Rāzī’s critique of the corresponding section of the Ishārāt in his commentary (see Sharh. al-Ishārāt, 121–122; for discussion, see Marmura 1991). At least some later commentators attempted to develop a logically valid demonstration on the basis of the flying man; for an account of this process in the thirteenthcentury commentator Ibn Kammūna, see Muehlethaler 2009. Later on, Mullā S·adrā presents his version of the flying man as a demonstration of the soul’s immateriality (see Asfār IV.2.2, 47; and cf. Chapter 7). See Marmura 1991, 630–633.


Self-awareness without substance

substantiality, Rāzī expressly denies any necessary connection between selfawareness and substantiality. As a result, the phenomenon of self-awareness is abstracted from the particular metaphysical basis of the concept of substance. I am not claiming that this abstraction was Rāzī’s aim. But be that as it may, the theoretical possibilities opened by such a conceptual move did not pass unnoticed by Suhrawardī.37 Bearing in mind Suhrawardī’s general criticism of the concept of substance as a foundation of metaphysics, it is not surprising to come across a critique of Avicenna along similar lines. But particularly interesting is the manner in which Suhrawardī develops the ingredients laid on the table above. Moreover, the critical argument against the substantiality of the self-aware human being is presented in both the comparably more Peripatetic setting of the Talwīh.āt and the overtly ishrāqī framework of the H · ikma al-ishrāq, which suggests that Suhrawardī considered it to be of prime importance to his departure from the tradition. The beginning of the last, eschatological section of the Talwīh.āt is a lengthy eulogy, rife with symbols, for knowledge and its soteriological power. Much of its terminology is familiar from Suhrawardī’s less technical works, and it therefore signals a move away from a strictly Peripatetic conceptual framework.38 Just before the passage below, Suhrawardī has praised a group of thinkers he characterizes as ‘the people of wisdom’, seemingly a reference to representatives of the Peripatetic philosophical tradition that has been the object of study for the preceding sections of the book, for having revealed the most important doctrines concerning the world’s origination from and return to its Creator, that is, the principles of the knowledge required for human perfection. However, he then adds a point he has qualms about. You have made the greatest destination evident by the clearest argument . . . were it not for one word here, namely that I was separated by myself (tajarradtu bi dhātī), gazed into it and found it to be thatness and existence, and it was added to ‘not be in a subject’ – which is like a description of substantiality – and [to have] relations to the body – which is a description of soulness. Regarding the relations, I found them external to it, and regarding 37


I do not claim that the following discussion in Suhrawardī derives from this particular work by his contemporary Rāzī, whom he certainly knew, for both had studied theology and philosophy with Majd al-Dīn al-Jīlī (Walbridge 2005, 201). It is perfectly possible that Rāzī and Suhrawardī had a common source, or that both were addressing a topic pertinent to the twelfth-century reception of Avicenna. For a brief but lucid characterization of this crucial period, see Eichner 2011, 117–119. Talwīh.āt III.5.1–11, 276–279 Habībī; 105–110 Corbin. Chapter 10 is especially interesting because it speaks of isolation or retreat into oneself from externally caused appearances in order to reach a higher type of knowledge, and thereby paves the way for our passage in chapter 15.

Substanceless self-awareness


its ‘not being in a subject’, it is something negative. If ‘substantiality’ has another meaning, I did not come across it, whereas I did come across my self and was not absent from it (uh.as..silu dhātī wa anā ghayru ghā’ibin ‘anhā), and it did not have a difference (fas.l), and so I know it by the very non-existence of my absence from it (u‘arifahā bi nafsi ‘adami ghaybatī ‘anhā). If it had a difference or a property (khus.ūs.īya) beyond existence, I would have apprehended them when I apprehended it, for nothing is closer to me than me, and upon analysis I only see in myself (fī dhātī) existence and apprehension, nothing else. [That] is distinct from another through accidents, and apprehension is as has been [explained] above, and so only ‘existence’ remains. Furthermore, if apprehension is supposed to have an acquired grasp – against what has been said – it will be apprehension of something, and [my self] is not constituted by an apprehension of itself (bi idrāki nafsihā) since it [that is, the apprehension] would be after [the self] (huwa ba‘ada nafsihā), nor by an apprehension of another since that is not concomitant to it. Preparedness for apprehension is accidental, and anyone who apprehends himself under the concept ‘I’ (man adraka dhātahu ‘alā mafhūmi anā) will not find upon analysis and inspection anything but existence that apprehends itself (nafsahu), and he is it. The concept of I as the concept of I (mafhūmu anā min h.aythu mafhūmu anā) – as far as it is common to both the Necessary and others – is that it is something which apprehends itself (dhātahu). Thus, if I had a reality other than this, the concept ‘I’ would be accidental to it, and so I would apprehend the accidental due to my not being absent from it while being absent from myself (akūnu anā udriku al-‘aradīya li ‘adami ghaybatī ‘anhu wa ghibtu ‘an dhātī), and that is absurd. Thus, I ˙judge that my quiddity is identical with existence, and my quiddity in the intellect is not divisible into two things, with the exception of negative things – which have been given existential names – and relations.39

Suhrawardī has no objections to the Avicennian phenomenon of selfawareness; his qualms are exclusive to the added qualifications that the self is not in a subject (that is, that it is an incorporeal substance) and that it has relations to the body (that is, that it is a soul). The latter qualification is quickly done away with as something unessential to the self, which of course is not adverse to Avicenna who applied self-awareness precisely to point towards the existence in itself of the entity that functions as a soul in relation to the body. The rejection of the self’s substantiality, on the other hand, is motivated by a metaphysical departure from Avicenna. Since substantiality can only be defined negatively as not being in a subject, it depends on a mind that is capable of negating a property of its object. As a negative property, substantiality is not a real feature of the object considered 39

Talwīh.āt III.5.15, 282–283 Habībī; 115–116 Corbin.


Self-awareness without substance

anymore than a dog that I presently distinguish from being human is constituted by this perceived non-humanity.40 The dog’s constitutive features are independent of what is specific to human beings, and although they entail the negative property of non-humanity, this entailment can be made actual only by a mind that is distinct from the real particular dogness. Notice that Suhrawardī applies the argument found in Abū al-Barakāt and Rāzī – substantiality is not evident in self-awareness – in a new systematic framework. Substantiality is no longer merely accidental to selfawareness. As a negative property it is not even an accident but something imported to the primitive phenomenon of self-awareness in a consideration that is external to it. Suhrawardī’s point in accentuating this critical departure from Avicenna is brought out by his additional consideration of selfawareness as mere apprehension and existence, that is, separated from any substance whose apprehension and existence would be at stake. Even as such a bare actuality, apprehension is found problematic. This is first and foremost because apprehension entails a relation to what is apprehended. There is no apprehension absolutely speaking, because apprehension must always be realized (made ‘distinct from another’) by its content, whereas self-awareness is characterized in the arguments discussed above as lacking any specific content. Interestingly, however, Suhrawardī grants the target of his argument the benefit of the doubt by considering the possibility that self-awareness is due to an acquired content (mafhūmun muh.as..sal, or ‘acquired grasp’) of something specific to the self.41 This is refuted by means of a very condensed version of the Avicennian argument against reflectionbased models of self-awareness: the apprehension of the content specific to the apprehending subject must be subsequent to the subject, for the subject can recognize the content as itself only by means of a prior familiarity with herself. Finally, Suhrawardī considers, albeit in a rather condensed argument, the special case of the first-person indexical ‘I’ as a concept specific to the self-aware subject. While self-awareness in the primitive sense (as ‘existence that apprehends itself’) does provide the reference to this concept, it cannot be brought about by the concept, because our explicit use of the first-personal indexical, both in speech and in thought, is intermittent and hence accidental to our existence. Consideration of a concept in the absence of reference is consideration of a mere concept, and if the concept ‘I’ has no 40 41

For a more detailed account of Suhrawardī’s critique of the Peripatetic concept of substance, see Chapter 6.2, 142–144. This is exactly parallel to Avicenna’s rhetorical manner of procedure in Ishārāt, namat. 3, 120; see Chapter 4.1, 72–75.

Substanceless self-awareness


primitive self-awareness as its basis,42 then in my use of it I will apprehend something that is accidental to myself without apprehending myself. Suhrawardī clearly thinks he has the weight of the epistemological tradition and common sense behind him when he declares the view as absurd. Thus, this series of remarks connects a familiar Avicennian argument for the immediacy of self-awareness to a decidedly un-Avicennian view of the metaphysics underlying the phenomenon. Self-awareness is no longer the existence of a substantial self but merely a certain type of existence, an existence that apprehends itself, which does not belong to any entity distinct from it. The first-personality that Avicenna carefully delimited as the existence of a certain type of existent is now divested of that existent. That these remarks amount to Suhrawardī’s final take in the discussion of self-awareness is corroborated by the emergence of a very similar argument in the H · ikma al-ishrāq, right at the heart of a section in which self-awareness is cast in an entirely new theoretical role. Having emphasized the immediacy of self-awareness by the familiar method of separating it from all possible objects of cognition, including one’s own body, he goes on to consider the case of substantiality. If substantiality is the perfection of [the self’s] quiddity or is taken to mean the denial of a subject or a substrate, it is nothing independent that your self could be identical to (laysat bi amrin mustaqillin takūna dhātuhā nafsuhā hiya). If substantiality is taken to be an unknown meaning (ma‘nā) and if you apprehend yourself continually and not by means of something additional, then this substantiality, which is absent from you, is neither your self as a whole (kulla dhātika) nor a part of your self (juz’a dhātika). On close examination you will not find anything by means of which you are you43 except something that apprehends itself (shay’an mudrikan li dhātihi): this is your ‘I-ness’ (anā’īyatuka). Everything that apprehends itself and its I-ness (kullu man adraka dhātahu wa anā’īyatahu) shares this with you. Apprehensiveness (al-mudrikīya), therefore, is not by means of an attribute or anything additional, whatever it is like. It is not a part of your I-ness, since the other part would then remain unknown as long as it remains beyond apprehensiveness and being aware (al-shā‘irīya), and so it would be unknown and would not belong to your self whose awareness is not additional to it (lā yakūna min dhātika allatī shu‘ūruhā lam yazid ‘alayhā). Thus, it is evident

42 43

Cf. Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 239 Habībī, 70–71 Corbin, where Suhrawardī describes the concept ‘I’ as a commonplace universal. I read mā anta bihi anta with Corbin instead of the rather awkward mā an bihi anta in Walbridge and Ziai. The latter may be a typographical error, for Walbridge and Ziai’s translation accords with Corbin’s reading.


Self-awareness without substance in this way that thingness is not added to being aware either, and so it44 appears to itself by itself (huwa al-z· āhiru li nafsihi bi nafsihi), and there is no property with it so that appearing (al-z· uhūr) would be its state. Rather, it is that which appears itself (huwa nafsu al-z· āhir), nothing else.45

The argument is familiar from the Talwīh.āt. If substantiality merely indicates that the attributee is not in a subject, it is a negative property and therefore nothing that can be found in reality independent of the act of attribution. If, on the other hand, we suppose substantiality to be a real property of ourselves, we come across Abū al-Barakāt’s observation that the soul’s substantiality is simply not given in the experience of a self-aware subject. When people refer to themselves by means of first-person indexicals and related expressions, they do not intend to commit to any ontological theory of their selves. All they do is point out that they are aware of themselves, and that is what Suhrawardī urges the philosopher to settle with as well. Earlier on in the metaphysical section of the H · ikma al-ishrāq, Suhrawardī has allowed for a certain qualified use of the concept of substance. This is in the case of corporeal entities, which owing to the strictures of their material constitution can never appear completely or in their entirety. For a simple example, I cannot see the underside of the table on which I write unless I bend down to look at the table from below, but this will in turn rob me of the view of its upper surface. Yet in spite of all surfaces of the table never appearing simultaneously, it seems intuitively plausible to attribute them all to a single thing as its simultaneous aspects. This opacity or ‘darkness’ (z· ulma) of corporeal things can be overcome by means of the concept of substance to which the different aspects can be attributed. It is important to notice that the concept of substance is fundamentally linked to this opacity in the H · ikma al-ishrāq, where Suhrawardī constantly uses the conjunctive formula ‘dusky substance’ (jawhar ghāsiq), and that substantiality is added in intellectual consideration and never appears as such.46 But when it comes to my presence to myself, we are dealing with full and constant transparency, which bereaves us of all reasons to attribute substantiality to ourselves – nothing hidden is required for understanding self-awareness. As a parallel conceptual move Suhrawardī also denies that self-awareness is a property, or even existence, that belongs to a thing. By denying thingness (shay’īya) of self-awareness – ‘thingness’ being one of the 44 45 46

It is not obvious what the masculine third-personal pronoun refers to here. I take the reference to be to ‘everything that apprehends itself and its I-ness’ two sentences earlier. H · I II.1.5.116, 80–81 Walbridge and Ziai; 112–113 Corbin; cf. II.1.5.118–119, 81–82 Walbridge and Ziai; 114–115 Corbin. H · I II.1.3–4, 77–79 Walbridge and Ziai; 107–110 Corbin.

Substanceless self-awareness


most general concepts in Avicenna’s metaphysics47 – Suhrawardī denies the viability of all metaphysical accounts of the phenomenon, beyond mere ostension and naming, for if the self-aware subject cannot even be said to be a thing, we can hardly expect to reach very far in attempting to define what kind of thing it is. Moreover, slightly later in the same section Suhrawardī argues against the view that self-awareness, like any act of intellection, could be explained by means of the incorporeality of its subject,48 which amounts to a rejection of another explanatory feature in Avicenna’s approach to selfawareness. As the outcome of these critical remarks Suhrawardī concludes that selfawareness is self-awareness, period. It is not a property of any thing, not even a mode of existence, which could yield it to alternative metaphysical accounts. All we can do, and should even aspire to, is point towards it in an analytical description of our experience. But such a description will merely pick out something that is immediately obvious to us. Once it has been so picked out, it can be named but it can never be defined or explained by means of anything more basic or better known. Suhrawardī had a reason for rejecting both the inference from selfawareness to the substantiality of the human soul and the idea that self-awareness is definable or explainable in any way. As we will see, he resorts to the phenomenon of primitive self-awareness in giving content to the foundational notion of his metaphysics, that of pure incorporeal light, and for this purpose substantiality would be quite superfluous, indeed potentially problematic. Moreover, the simultaneous obviousness and undefinability of self-awareness provides Suhrawardī with a foundational type of knowledge, on which he builds his revisionist concept of knowledge as presence. 47 48

For this status of thingness, see Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt I.5, 22–29. H · I II.1.5.119, 82–83 Walbridge and Ziai; 114–116 Corbin. Suhrawardī’s somewhat sophistical argument is based on the idea that prime matter is also incorporeal in the sense that it is not determined into discrete bodies. Thus, if self-awareness is due to incorporeality, prime matter will also be aware of itself. Since the conclusion is absurd, we must reject the explanatory connection between selfawareness and incorporeality.

chapter 6

Self-awareness, presence, appearance: the ishrāqī context

In spite of his major debt to Avicenna’s philosophy, Suhrawardī departs from his predecessor in two interrelated questions of fundamental importance. The first of these concerns the foundation of epistemology: what in the final analysis is primarily known, epistemologically primitive and foundational, and therefore the basis of our knowledge? The second question penetrates the corresponding foundation of metaphysics: what in the final analysis is primarily there, metaphysically primitive and foundational, or, in Aristotelian terms, the primary sense of the verb ‘to be’? Interestingly for our topic, self-awareness functions in a most prominent role in the articulation of the Suhrawardian alternative in both of the two questions. The epistemological point is stated most explicitly in the Talwīh.āt and the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt, that is, in those of Suhrawardī’s philosophical works that are considered ‘Peripatetic’ in comparison to the fullblown illuminationism of the H · ikma al-ishrāq. In fact, the positive treatment of the concept of knowledge in the latter is relatively scant, the focus being instead on the metaphysical question. The presence of its overarching terminology shows, however, that the concept of knowledge articulated in the two systematically ‘prior’ works is preliminary to illuminationist metaphysics. One can therefore speculate upon the argumentative order between the two departures and say that the concept of knowledge as presence is a condition of the concept of being as appearance in much the same way as the general account of being comes after – indeed much later than – the theory of science in the structure of the Peripatetic system. This would tally neatly with Suhrawardī’s own advice to study his philosophical treatises in an order 1 culminating in the H · ikma al-ishrāq. Systematically speaking, however, it seems more natural to conceive of the two as fundamentally interdependent. Indeed, it does not seem to be a coincidence that Suhrawardī’s metaphysics hinges on the concept of appearance (z· uhūr), derived from a term 1

See Mashāri‘ III, muqaddama, 194 Corbin; cf. Ziai 1990, 9–11, 14–19.


Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


with a primarily epistemic meaning, whereas the corresponding epistemology is based on the concept of presence (h.udūr), a term with existential ˙ connotations.2


Self-awareness and knowledge as presence

Although the Talwīh.āt follows a rather traditional Peripatetic order of procedure, Suhrawardī introduces the notion of knowledge as presence neither in the sections devoted to the theory of science nor in those discussing cognitive psychology. Rather, it is only towards the end of the third, metaphysical part, when tackling the problem of God’s knowledge, that he has recourse to the term and the idea behind it. The term figures systematically only in the enigmatic passage in which Suhrawardī recounts how Aristotle, as an emphatically mythical figure, appears to him in a dreamlike vision after he had exhausted himself labouring with ‘the question of knowledge’.3 Much has been written about this passage, but few writers have paid close attention to its context. Two observations in particular are quite crucial for a full comprehension of why and in what sense Suhrawardī introduces the concept of presence here. First of all, the passage is embedded in the metaphysical discussion of God, the particular explanandum being God’s knowledge of particular things.4 Secondly, this section of Talwīh.āt shows considerable similarities with the way in which self-awareness figures in the discussion of God’s knowledge in Avicenna’s Ta‘līqāt. Before introducing the appearance of Aristotle, Suhrawardī briefly reviews the problems in some of the available alternatives for making sense of knowledge in general and of God’s knowledge in particular. He first argues against the identity theory of knowledge in a manner that is entirely derivative of Avicenna.5 But he also has qualms with Avicenna’s own theory, according to which cognitive forms inhere in the knowing subject, universal forms in an intellectual subject, and particular forms in a corporeal organ of perception.6 According to the standard Avicennian phrase, God knows particular things ‘in a universal manner’, which is often 2 3 4 5 6

The rest of this chapter is a refined adaptation of Kaukua 2013 and 2011, respectively. Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 238–239 Habībī; 70 Corbin. This observation is somewhat controversial; I will discuss Eichner’s (2011) alternative interpretation below. Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 237–238 Habībī; 68–69 Corbin. Cf. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman. Eichner 2011 (119–127) shows that the problems Suhrawardī raises were commonplace in the twelfthcentury reception of Avicennian epistemology.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

qualified by saying that He knows His creation by knowing Himself as its cause.7 The universality of God’s knowledge is due to His immateriality, which entails that He is a subject of intellection and that therefore the proper objects of His knowledge are universal.8 The equivalence of immateriality and intellectuality is explicitly borne out in Avicenna’s discussion of human access to particulars in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12.9 Given that the human soul is intellectual, the manner of cognition proper to it is the apprehension of universals, and so as an intellect, like God, it only has access to particular entities in a universal manner. For instance, I can only know my friend Zayd as a human being with a particular complexion, build, gait, humoral character and so forth – with as many other universal attributes as I like to add. But the problem is that the Zayd that I thereby grasp is not a particular person but a bundle of universal properties which can in principle be shared by individuals other than Zayd. Yet I find it intuitively plausible that my friend is a unique person whose individuality cannot be reduced to the accidental fact that there happen to be no other human beings with the exact same bundle of properties. The problem Suhrawardī seems to perceive here is that I am somehow certain that I apprehend an individual in this strong sense and that our theory of knowledge should be able to save this intuition.10 But Avicenna did propose a solution to the dilemma: human beings are not merely intellects but also souls that function in and engage with the material world by means of corporeal instruments proper to them. Thus, their faculties of sense perception allow them an ostensive reference to the unique spatiotemporal co-ordinates which are the foundation of the individuality of material entities. The person I am conversing with can be none other than my friend Zayd because I perceive him as this individual here right now.11 Now, Suhrawardī is perfectly aware of this attempt at a solution.12 Why does he find it unsatisfactory? It has recently been suggested that this is because of problems related to Avicenna’s substance dualism, more precisely his inability to make lucid sense of the relation between the immaterial human substance and its body.13 Since the case is exclusively epistemological here, the relevant 7

For the relevant texts and discussion, see Marmura 1962 and Adamson 2005. For this traditional tenet in Avicenna, see Adamson 2011a. 9 Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, 70; cf. Chapter 3.1, 48–50. 10 Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 237–238 Habībī, 69 Corbin; for discussion, see Eichner 2011, 129. 11 Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, 70; cf. Ishārāt, nahj 1, 5–6. For discussion, see Black 2012 and Eichner 2011, 130. 12 Talwīh.āt I.1.4, 8 Habībī; cf. Eichner 2011, 129. 13 Eichner 2011, 135–136. 8

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


aspect of the mind–body relation is of course how a material process in the organs of perception can cause an immaterial appearance of a particular object in a cognitive subject that is designed to apprehend universal objects. Merely stating that the organs are causally related to particular things does not explain how those things can be given as appearances to the soul. Although this problem is a real one for any substance dualist, it is difficult to see how Suhrawardī’s proposed solution could meet with any greater success. I will revisit this point once we have a clearer idea of what the concept of knowledge as presence is about, but let it now be said that I believe a rather different motive for Suhrawardī’s dissatisfaction emerges from the context of discussion. Two conditions are relevant here. First of all, since God is absolutely one, His knowledge of Himself and the world of His creation cannot be two pieces of knowledge in Him. Secondly, since God is the supreme knower, He has to somehow know the world lest there be any deficiency to His knowledge.14 As a result, Suhrawardī needs a concept of knowledge that is capable of making sense of a subject’s simultaneous knowledge both of itself and other objects, and allows for both particular and universal objects to be given to the same subject. Avicenna’s theory of knowledge, because it is based on the inherence of cognitive forms in the knowing subject and makes the apprehension of particular objects conditional to a relation to matter, fails on both accounts as an explanation of God’s knowledge. This is why Suhrawardī attempts to carve the conceptual map anew by means of the notion of knowledge as presence. In fact, it is precisely in the solution of the problem of how to account for the possibility of an immaterial subject apprehending particular objects that Aristotle comes to help Suhrawardī: [a] So he said to me: Return to yourself (irja‘ ilā nafsika), and it will be solved for you. I said: How? And he said: You apprehend yourself, and your apprehension of yourself is either by yourself or by means of another (innaka mudrikun li nafsika, fa idrākuka li dhātika bi dhātika aw ghayrihā), but then you would have another faculty or self that apprehends yourself (dhātun tadruku dhātaka), and the discussion would revert, and so its absurdity is evident. [b] Since you apprehend yourself by yourself (adrakta dhātaka bi dhātika), is that by considering a trace of yourself in your self (bi i‘tibāri atharin li dhātika fī dhātika)? I said: Of course. 14

For these conditions, see the discussion immediately following the account of Aristotle’s appearance, especially Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 244–245 Habībī; 75–76 Corbin.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance He said: Then if the trace does not correspond to your self (dhātaka), it will not be its form, and you will not apprehend [your self]. I said: Thus, the trace is the form of my self (dhātī)? He said: Is your form of an absolute soul or one individuated by other attributes? And I opted for the second. So he said: Every form in the soul is universal – even if it were composed of many universals – and it does not prevent participation in itself; if it is supposed to be prevented, that is due to another preventing [factor]. You apprehend yourself (anta mudriku dhātika), and it prevents participation in itself, and so this apprehension is not of form. So I said: I apprehend the concept ‘I’ (udriku mafhūma anā). And he said: The concept ‘I’ as the concept of I does not prevent participation from occurring in it, and you know that the particular, insofar as it is nothing but a particular, is universal; ‘this’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘he’ have universal intelligible meanings with respect to their separate concepts without particular reference. So I said: How then? He said: Since your knowledge of yourself (‘ilmuka bi dhātika) is not by means of any faculty other than your self (dhātika) and you know that you are nothing but the one apprehending your self (anta al-mudriku li dhātika lā ghayr), not by a trace that does not correspond and not by one that does, your self (dhātuka) is an intellect, that which understands and that which is understood.15

Aristotle relies on the indubitable phenomenon of self-awareness in an extended argument against the validity of the impression theory of knowledge as an account of our apprehension of particular things such as ourselves. He begins in section [a] by countering the view that self-apprehension is by means of something apart from the self that apprehends and is apprehended. The argument is a condensed version of the familiar refutation of reflection-based models of self-awareness, construed here as a regress argument: if awareness of a special object is supposed to render me aware of myself, then I must somehow recognize the other as myself, which forces us again to face the question of whether this recognition is due to the same self being both that which apprehends and that which is apprehended or due to a further special object. Since the regress must be ceased at the earliest possible stage, the thesis that selfawareness is by means of a special object distinct from the self can be ruled out. Section [b] addresses the possibility that although self-awareness is due to the self instead of any distinct object, it should be explained by a special feature in the self, such as a trace or a form, that is caused by and corresponds to the self. Here we come across the concern extrapolated 15

Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 239–240 Habībī; 70–71 Corbin.

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above. Since the soul is immaterial, all forms in it will be universal. Thus, if I were aware of myself by means of an impression of the form of myself, I would be aware of something universal, and this has to be rejected in the face of my intuitive certainty of my uniqueness as an individual. Along lines familiar from his denial of the self’s substantiality, Suhrawardī also suggests that self-awareness is induced by an apprehension of the first-person indexical, but Aristotle cogently argues that there’s nothing individual in the concept ‘I’ when taken alone as a concept. All subjects of experience share in being an I, and although the concept expresses in each case an inherently individual self’s awareness of itself, as a point of reference this awareness is prior to the concept. Thus, self-awareness is presented here as a paradigmatic example of knowledge that cannot be explained as a case of the inherence of what is known in the knower. As we know, this is something Avicenna would have agreed with. However, as we have also learned, Avicenna was ill at ease in his attempts to articulate the cognitive category proper to self-awareness. This tension in Avicennian cognitive psychology is increased by further phenomena that the mythical Aristotle introduces to Suhrawardī. The first of these is our constant awareness of our bodies as being unique to ourselves. Thus, our awareness of them cannot be due to a universal form of the body inherent in us.16 Further corroboration for the claim that we must be aware of individual objects is provided by a brief excursion into Avicennian faculty psychology and its account of discursive thought by means of the system of internal senses. The human faculty of thought (mufakkira) can only operate by means of particular objects of cognition, which Suhrawardī considers especially problematic because thought plays an indispensable role in the acquisition of the universal objects of intellection proper to the immaterial subject of cognition. Were it not for this faculty, we could never abstract from the particular features of our percepts, nor could we arrange acquired propositions into syllogisms that render us capable of understanding new propositions as their conclusions. Thus, Avicennian epistemology itself requires that we are aware of both universal and particular objects. Finally, Suhrawardī’s Aristotle suggests that we are indubitably aware of the activity of our internal senses in such processes of thought, and this awareness is something that none of these faculties is capable of, for since they act through a corporeal organ, they cannot establish a transparent relation to themselves. On the other hand, if the incorporeal self only knows by 16

Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 240 Habībī; 71 Corbin. Suhrawardī uses the expression lā taghību ‘anhu (‘you are not absent from it’) of the body, indicating thereby his concept of knowledge as presence.


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means of universal forms inhering in it, it cannot grasp this particular activity either.17 The unstated conclusion is that a new concept of knowledge is direly needed. Having dealt with these phenomena as so many problems for the impression theory of knowledge, Aristotle moves on to present a new positive definition: [c] He said: Since you know that [the soul] apprehends neither by means of a corresponding trace nor by means of a form, know that intellection is the presence of the thing to a self (al-dhāt) separate from matter, or if you like, you can say: [the thing’s] not being absent from [the self]. This is more complete because it includes the apprehension of something of both itself (li dhātihi) and another, for the thing is not present to itself, but it is not absent from [itself] either (al-shay’u lā yah.duru li nafsihi wa lākinna lā ˙ and not absent from itself yaghību ‘anhā). As regards the soul, it is separate (ghayru ghā’ibatin ‘an dhātihā), and in accordance with its separation it apprehends itself (dhātahā) and what is absent from it, which when it is not made present to [the soul] in concrete (‘aynihi), such as heaven, earth and their kind, [the soul] makes present its form. As regards particulars, they are in faculties that are present to [the soul], and as regards universals, they are in [the soul] itself (fī dhātihā), for among those that are apprehended the universal is not impressed in bodies, and what is apprehended is the very form that is present, nothing external to conception. If it is said of the external that it is apprehended, that is in a secondary sense. [The soul’s] self is not absent from itself (dhātuhā ghayru ghā’ibin ‘an dhātihā), nor is its body [absent from the soul] in any regard whatsoever, nor are any faculties apprehending its body [absent from the soul] in any regard whatsoever.18

At the outset, knowledge is defined as the presence of what is known to the knower, and so it is contrasted with the Avicennian theory based on the inherence of a representation or form of what is known in the knower. The notion of presence is then rephrased by means of a semantic double negation as the known object’s not being absent from the knower. The latter definition is stated to be more appropriate because it is inclusive of both self-awareness and the awareness of other objects, which suggests that presence is a special case of the non-existence of absence. All objects of cognition, whether universal or particular, as well as the cognitive capacities of the subject that is aware of them, are known by the subject through their presence to her. Since they are present to the subject, by definition they cannot be absent from her. On the contrary, the subject’s 17 18

Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 240 Habībī; 71 Corbin. Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 240–241 Habībī; 71–72 Corbin; cf. Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 487.

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


awareness of herself is not due to presence, for presence being characteristic of objects, nothing can be present to itself, but the subject is not absent from herself either, and in this latter sense her self-awareness can also be spoken of as knowledge. Thus, it seems that knowledge in the more specific sense of presence means being an object of knowledge for a subject, or, to use a Suhrawardian expression, an it that appears for an I. The non-existence of absence on the other hand seems to be a more vague phrase for simply being given as a matter of experience, appearing either as an it or as an I. Suhrawardī’s epistemological use of the concept of presence is not unique in the twelfth-century reception of Avicenna. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī applies the term profusely in al-Mabāh.ith al-mashriqīya19 and especially in the summary of Avicenna’s Ishārāt known as the Lubāb al-Ishārāt.20 In the latter work, Rāzī begins the section on cognitive psychology by a definition of apprehension (idrāk) in terms of presence: ‘Apprehension amounts to the presence of the form of what one is aware of in the one that is aware (h.udūru ˙ 21 .sūrati al-mash‘ūri bihi fī al-shā‘ir).’ The notion of presence is then used to argue for a mental mode of existence for the immediate objects of knowledge that is independent of whether anything corresponds to them in extramental reality. Later on in the same section, in presenting an argument for the existence of ‘the holy faculty’ (al-quwwatu al-qudsīya),22 Rāzī equivocates between presence and awareness: When we have apprehended an intellectual form and then forgotten it, it is said that after forgetting that form either is or is not present in our souls. The first is impossible, because if it were present in our souls, one would be aware of it (law kānat h.ādiratan fī nufūsinā la kānat mash‘ūran bihi), for there is no ˙ other meaning of awareness than that very presence (lā ma‘nā li al-shu‘ūri illā nafsu dhālika al-h.udūr).23 ˙

Rāzī here refutes the existence of intellectual memory and then explains the empirical fact that we do recall matters of understanding by means of a renewed connection to the active intellect. The holy faculty, around which the argument as a whole revolves, is then defined as the spontaneity of such a connection. Our interest, however, lies in the connection of awareness to presence. If the argument against intellectual memory is to hold, my being 19 20 22


Cf. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., I.444; and see Eichner 2011, 126–127. See, for instance, Rāzī, Lubāb, namat. 3, 2, 235–242. 21 Rāzī, Lubāb, namat. 3, 2, 235. This is a paraphrase of Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 127. The holy faculty is the rare human capacity of connecting to the active intellect spontaneously, without recourse to learning or discursive thought. Avicenna’s explanation of prophecy hinges on this capacity; cf. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 248–250 Rahman. Rāzī, Lubāb, namat. 3, 2, 239.


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aware of an object must mean that the object appears to me as an object of my actual consideration, for were that not the case, it is difficult to see what the intuitive evidence could be which Rāzī here clearly relies on. Thus, both ‘awareness’ and ‘presence’ entail that something is experientially given. Rāzī does not define knowledge as presence – that is a uniquely Suhrawardian move – but his way of characterizing the term corroborates the interpretation according to which Suhrawardī’s concept of presence is designed to focus on knowledge as a matter of experience. We are intuitively certain that we have experience of individual entities, or to put it another way, that such entities are experientially present to us, and in this sense it makes sense to say that we know them. As is suggested by the strong reliance on intuitive certainty in the discussion leading to section [c], Suhrawardī thinks that it should not, indeed cannot, be explained away in the face of problems that are due to the Avicennian combination of substance dualism and the inherence theory of knowledge. Diametrically opposed to Avicenna in this regard, Suhrawardī takes his cue from this intuitive certainty and is determined to make room for it in his concept of knowledge. His method of procedure thereby all but neglects the entire question of truth, absolutely crucial to all normative concepts of knowledge. The question of the correspondence between the experiential presence of what is known and its extramental existence is set aside by the simple statement that it is subsequent to presence. Only once something is present to me in experience can I begin to consider the question of whether anything like what is present exists without my experience.24 But why would one want to design a concept of knowledge shorn of this normative dimension? As I stated in the beginning of this section, the entire appearance of Aristotle is embedded in a theological context, and it is thereby motivated by the task of explaining how, or in what sense, God can be said to know His creation, constituted as it is by an infinite number of individual entities, in spite of the fact that He is absolutely one in a manner that our conception of His knowledge must not violate. In view of this aim, it is not relevant to consider the difference between truth and falsity in human knowledge. In the Peripatetic framework, this difference is dealt with naturalistically in terms of a psychological account of how knowledge comes to be, and Suhrawardī has related a standard, if somewhat simplified, Avicennian version of such an account earlier on in the Talwīh.āt.25 But if one is to explain God’s knowledge by means of its 24 25

This is pointed out by Ha’iri Yazdi 1992, 44–47. Talwīh.āt II.4.2, 151–154 Habībī; II.4.3.1–2, 157–166 Habībī.

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


similarities to the more readily available phenomenon of human knowledge, one will want to focus on aspects common to the two. From this point of view, questions of truth and falsity and the peculiarities of human cognitive psychology are not merely irrelevant but downright counterproductive. Moreover, Suhrawardī’s criticism of Avicenna is difficult to grasp without assuming a shift of approach of the sort I have described. As Heidrun Eichner has suggested, Avicenna’s account of intellection and universals houses a conflict of theoretical interests between logic and psychology.26 If intellects are confined to the exclusive apprehension of universals, as the case is made in logic, then Avicenna will run into seemingly insurmountable problems in his psychological account of the apprehension of particular things by human subjects, who because of their immateriality are intellects by definition. However, pace Eichner, I do not believe that this incoherence is Suhrawardī’s target here, for were that the case, it would be hard to avoid a rather grim assessment of his philosophical acumen. Why should Suhrawardī’s solution – that particulars are present to the immaterial self by means of the presence of its corporeal faculties of cognition – be any less obscure or problematic than that of Avicenna? In fact, isn’t his alleged solution a mere paraphrase of the Avicennian constituents of the problem? Corporeal faculties will still be required for human awareness of particulars. But if the point is to clear conceptual room for the knowledge of particulars in absolute terms, that is, including the special case of God and departing from the connections between immateriality, intellection and universality on the one hand and materiality, perception and particularity on the other, then Suhrawardī’s move appears much sounder. The concept of knowledge as presence performs this task by focusing on the givenness or appearance of what is known, entirely setting aside questions about the manner in which the appearance is brought about. This shared basis of givenness, appearance or presence allows Suhrawardī to use ordinary human knowledge, with its simultaneous apprehension of the knowing self and the objects known, as a means of elucidating God’s knowledge. In the above, I have claimed that Suhrawardī builds his concept of knowledge as presence on the phenomenon of self-awareness he inherits from Avicenna. But how precisely is self-awareness foundational in the crucial section [c]? Is it not simply one type of knowledge among others that the new concept is inclusive of? To answer this question, it is important to notice that the enumerated types of non-existence of absence are hierarchically ordered. The self’s not being absent to itself is the basis for the 26

Eichner 2011, 130–131.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

presence of its faculties to itself, and it is only by means of the faculties that the objects of the self’s operations can be present to it.27 A natural way of interpreting this is to say that my body, the corporeal faculties of cognition and the objects of their activity are present to me by entering my experience, that is, by entering ‘the field of presence’ opened by my self-awareness, or by my not being absent from myself. In other words, presence only means being given for a first-personal subject or appearing to a subject that exists in the first person. I admit that this interpretation requires reading quite a bit between the lines of the dense section [c] above, but it helps us to see how Suhrawardī could have expected the concept of knowledge as presence to avoid the contradiction between God’s absolute unity and the multiplicity introduced by the world of particular creatures as the object of His knowledge. Moreover, this aspect of the concept of knowledge as presence is laid out in a more extended fashion in a parallel chapter of the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt. The chapter in question is the first of the seventh mashra‘ in the metaphysical section of the book, and it is devoted to the task of explaining ‘the apprehension and knowledge of the Necessary Existent and those that are separate’. Just as in the Talwīh.āt, Suhrawardī begins by arguing against the identity theory of knowledge, this time applying the permanence of selfawareness in an interesting argument which we have already analysed.28 He then proceeds to refute in passing, referring to a discussion earlier on in the book, the theory according to which knowledge amounts to a union with the active intellect. Following this section, he addresses an argument for the self-awareness of any immaterial entity, which he attributes somewhat enigmatically to ‘people . . . who are stronger in investigation than’ those proposing the union with the active intellect. These people have set a premise within the question of knowledge. Thus, they have established a principle – that what is separate must apprehend itself (anna al-mufāraqa yajibu an yakūna mudrikan li dhātihi) – which is that whatever is understood has a subsisting essence (dhāt), the existence of which outside the mind is like its existence in the mind, that is, separate from matter. Thus, when it is understood, its form can be connected to another intelligible in the soul, and as a result it is understood along with another thing. Since its 27


Cf. Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 487. A parallel hierarchy is put forth in the account of God’s knowledge later on in the Talwīh.āt: God is primarily aware of (or not absent from) Himself, but this entails the simultaneous presence of His concomitants in a descending order from the celestial intellects to the celestial souls, and subsequently to whatever takes place under their guidance below them (Talwīh.āt III.3.2, 244–245 Habībī; 75–76 Corbin). Cf. Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 474–475; and see Chapter 5.1, 111.

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


essence, as its form, is not surrounded by material accidents, its quiddity can be connected to an intellectual form, and so it can be rendered understood. If intellection were impossible for substance – and what is impossible in the genus of its nature is impossible in the species – self-apprehension (idrāku dhātihi) would not be possible for any substance, and that is not the case. Since the intellection of an intellectual form is not impossible for it, the intellection of that form entails that it understands itself (ya‘aqila dhātahu). Thus, that which understands something is to understand that it is that which understands (lahu an ya‘aqila annahu huwa alladhī ya‘aqila). Since this thing is such that it is actual in every respect, what is not impossible for it is not possible for it as a non-occurring possibility, rather it must have necessity through itself (bi dhātihi) or through another in some things, such as the intellects. Thus, whatever is understood has an essence (dhāt) that is separate from matter and subsists by itself (bi nafsihā), and it understands itself (dhātahu) and another.29

This particular version of the argument derives from Avicenna,30 but as such it expresses a view with a much longer history according to which the existence proper to an intellect entails self-intellection. Suhrawardī, however, does not accept the argument, based as it is on the idea of the inherence of the known form in the knowing subject. His main problem is that God too understands Himself, but in His absolute unity He cannot be a subject in which any known form could inhere and therefore represents an exception to the principle upon which the argument hinges.31 But as a follow-up to this critical assessment, Suhrawardī adds that he has no objections to the equivalence between self-cognition and immateriality. It is perfectly sound to say that since God is immaterial, He is not absent from Himself and therefore understands Himself. However, this piece of truth must be detached from the Avicennian concept of knowledge as the inherence of what is known in the knower. Rather, God’s self-understanding is a simple fact, and although we can distinguish in analysis between the act of His understanding, His being a subject of understanding and His being the object of understanding, no such distinction exists in reality.32 This emphasis on God’s unity is followed by a discussion of God’s knowledge of His creation. In a rather traditional manner, Suhrawardī states that He knows particular creatures through His knowledge of Himself, that is, as His concomitants. This is analogous to the way in 29 31


Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 475–476. 30 Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 132. This argument derives from Rāzī, Sharh. al-Ishārāt, I.169. Suhrawardī also presents two further counterarguments based on a distinction between mental and extramental existence. (Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 476–477.) Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 477.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

which we, knowing the human essence, will also know its concomitants, with the difference that where our knowledge of the relevant concomitants is potential in the sense that we can give an account of them if presented with the task, God’s knowledge of His concomitants is constant and actual.33 Even though Suhrawardī goes through an array of counterarguments to this traditional claim,34 he eventually seems to accept it, though not without a qualification. Again, he emphasizes that God’s knowledge of His concomitants is not to be explained as the inherence of the concomitants in Him in the manner of the inherence of accidents in a subject.35 After this analysis of the sound and unsound aspects of the alternative concepts of knowledge, Suhrawardī states that his own view can be read in the H · ikma al-ishrāq and that his present motive has been to show to what extent the Peripatetics have been in the right. He adds that the next best account is given in the appearance of Aristotle in the Talwīh.āt, the method of which can be summarized in the maxim ‘that the human being first investigate his knowledge of himself (fī ‘ilmihi bi dhātihi) and then rise to what is higher’,36 and he goes on to give an extended paraphrase of it. Thus, the following discussion of presence takes place in a context exactly similar to that in the Talwīh.āt; God’s knowledge is elucidated by considering the entire range of human knowledge from a point of view that sets aside differences in causes respective to each type of knowledge and focuses instead on their shared features, that is, presence and lack of absence, which are then relied on in a new account of God’s knowledge of Himself and His creation. Suhrawardī starts as he did in the Talwīh.āt, that is, by presenting selfawareness as a type of knowledge that the Avicennian inherence theory of knowledge cannot explain: So we say that when our souls apprehend their self (nufūsanā idhan adrakat dhātahā), their apprehension of it is not by means of form due to [several] respects. The first of them is that the form which is in the soul is not identical with [the soul] (laysat bi ‘aynihā hiya hiya), whereas that which apprehends itself (al-mudriku li dhātihi) apprehends what is identical to his I-ness (mudrikun li ‘ayni mā bihi anā’īyatuhu), not something corresponding to it, and every form, which in the apprehender is additional to its self (‘alā dhātihi), is in relation to it an ‘it’, not being an ‘I’ for it, and so the apprehension is not by means of form.37 33

34 37

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 478. Interestingly, an Avicennian version of this argument figures in the Ta‘līqāt in the very context in which the most striking remarks about human self-awareness are made (Ta‘līqāt 158–160). See Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 478–480. 35 Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 480–483. 36 Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 483–484. Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 484.

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This argument rules out the possibility that self-awareness can be explained as an apprehension of a special object by means of the distinction, familiar from the H · ikma al-ishrāq, between a subject’s appearance to itself as an I and an object’s appearance to the subject as an it. The case is made in terms that take greater liberties with its Avicennian heritage than the parallel argument in the Talwīh.āt, but the immediately following second argument is closer to that text. Secondly, if the soul’s apprehension of itself (idrāka al-nafsi li dhātihā) were by means of a form, then since every form occurring in the soul is universal, its correspondence to many is not impossible, and even if one takes a combination of universals, the whole of which is exclusive to a single individual among souls, one will not do away with its being universal. Every human apprehends himself (yudriku dhātahu) in a manner which prevents sharing, and so his intellection of his particular self (ta‘aqquluhu li dhātihi al-juz’īya) cannot be by any form whatsoever.38

The crux of the question is familiar from section [b] of the appearance of Aristotle. Since the human subject is immaterial, any form inhering in it, including the form that is alleged to make the subject aware of itself, must be universal. This extrapolation of the Avicennian equivalence between immateriality and intellectuality, however, violates our intuition according to which the self each of us is aware of is a unique individual. Moreover, it makes impossible our exclusive operative access to our bodies and the cognitive faculties that rely on corporeal organs: Furthermore, the soul apprehends its body, and it apprehends its estimation and imagery, and if it apprehended these things by means of a form in itself (fī dhātihā) – that form being universal – the soul would move a universal body and operate universal faculties, and it would have neither apprehension of its body nor apprehension of the faculties of its body. This is not correct – how could it be when estimation ignores itself (nafsahu) and also ignores the internal faculties! In that case it would not reject their traces. Thus, since estimation does not apprehend these faculties, since none of the corporeal faculties apprehend themselves (nafsahu), and since the soul apprehends nothing but universals, the human must not apprehend his body, his estimation and his imagery which are exclusive to him as particulars. That is not the case, for he is not human who does not apprehend his particular present body and his particular present faculties and operate his particular faculties. Thus the human does not apprehend himself (mudrikun li nafsihi) by means of a form, nor does he apprehend his faculties as a whole by means of a form, nor his body as a whole by means of a form.39 38

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 484.


Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 484–485; emphases added.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

In comparison with the corresponding passage in the Talwīh.āt, this text emphasizes that the basis of the body’s presence is in the prior self-awareness of the soul that acts in and through the body. Nothing in the body is capable of apprehending or making present the body or anything in it, not even estimation, the highest cognitive faculty operative in the body. Were it not for the soul that is aware of itself, the body could never be present to anything, precisely because presence requires a subject that is already aware of herself and to which other things can therefore be present. In other words, the body enters the soul’s experience because that experience belongs to a subject that is aware of herself to begin with. But importantly, it is the body itself that is present to the soul, and only therefore can it be present as my particular body, the locus of operation for my particular faculties. If the body was present only through the mediation of a representative form inhering in me, the inhering form would of course be mine in the same sense, but because of my immateriality and the consequent universality of whatever is supposed to inhere in me, the form would not be uniquely representative of a single body. Thus, only the knowledge of the body and the acts taking place in it would be mine in this strong sense, but this would exclude neither the possibility that what I know is applicable to other bodies nor the possibility that a single body is known in the same respect by two different subjects. This aspect of the concept of knowledge as presence, namely that the known thing itself can be present to the knower without the mediation of inhering representations, is particularly prominent in Suhrawardī’s discussion of the phenomenon of pain. What confirms that we have apprehensions, in which there is no need for any form other than the presence of [the thing] itself that is apprehended (h.udūri ˙ dhāti al-mudrak), is that the human being suffers pain because the cohesion is impaired in an organ of his, and he is aware of it, not because the impairment of the cohesion occurs for him as another form in that organ or in another; rather, what is apprehended is identical with that impairment (nafsu dhālika al-tafarruq), it is sensed and pain by itself (bi dhātihi), not by means of a form occurring from it. It has thus been indicated that there are such apprehended things that the occurrence of [the thing] itself (h.us.ūlu dhātihā) to the soul, or to something with a proper presential connection to the soul, is sufficient for apprehension.40

When we feel pain, we do not feel an effect of a cause that does not appear but ‘the thing itself’. Pain is not a representation of a wound, a lesion or 40

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 485.

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


anything like that, but rather the very wound itself as it is present through the faculty of touch. Of course, I can later on see the wound and infer that what I see is causing the pain, but I should not draw the conclusion therefrom that what is seen is in any sense prior to or more real than the pain. The two appearances, the wound seen and the pain felt, can be identified because both are present to the same subject, not because the wound that is seen causes the pain. Importantly, Suhrawardī does not consider pain to be an anomaly in perception. Rather, owing to its pronounced immediacy pain provides a brilliant example of a fact true of all perception: perception is not constituted by the occurrence of forms that represent extramental objects of perception but is rather to be conceived as the entrance of the very things perceived through the soul’s faculties of perception into the field of presence that the soul is in itself. This is summarized in Suhrawardī’s concluding remark on the various types of human knowledge: What the party of Peripatetics has to admit is this: they allow that the form may occur in the instrument of sight without the human being aware of it – when he is immersed in his thought or in what another sense is bringing forth – and so there is no doubt about the soul’s attention (iltihāt) to that form, and apprehension is only by means of the soul’s attention to what it sees as being looked at (al-idrāku laysa illā bi iltifāti al-nafsi ‘inda mā tarā mushāhadatan), and what is being looked at is not by means of a universal form, rather what is being looked at is by means of a particular form, and so there is no doubt that if the soul has presential illuminational knowledge (‘ilmun ishrāqīyun h.udūrī), it is not by means of a form.41 ˙

It is not sufficient for perception to arise that a physical process takes place in the organ of perception. The process has to be attended by the soul, or it has to be present to the soul. In other words, what goes on in the organ of perception has to enter the field of presence constituted by the soul, that is, its experience, in the manner proper to the particular faculty in whose organ the process takes place. In itself, the soul is nothing but this field of presence, this first-personal experience, which is entered by the various contents that are thereby made present. When Suhrawardī turns to elucidate God’s knowledge by means of these observations about human experience, it becomes obvious that his point is not to present a natural philosopher’s account of how knowledge comes to be. Rather, the concept of knowledge as presence is an attempt at spelling out what knowledge is when it is understood in exclusively experiential 41

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 485; emphasis added.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

terms, as an appearance to a subject of experience. It is in this specific sense that Suhrawardī uses human knowledge as a means to elucidate his theological subject. Self-awareness is foundational for this purpose precisely because it provides the basis on which other cognitive content can become present without the presence of that content in any way compromising the constancy, stability and unity of the self and its awareness of itself. God’s knowledge is defined as illuminational knowledge (al-‘ilmu al-ishrāqī) without a form or a trace but merely by means of an individual relation which is the illuminational presence of the thing (h.udūru al-shay’i h.udūran ishrāqīyan), like for the soul, ˙ ˙ but in the Necessary Existent it is more primary and more complete.42

And because of this greater completeness, God apprehends Himself (dhātahu) not by means of anything additional to Himself (dhātihi) – as came up in the soul’s case – and He knows things by presential illuminational knowledge (bi al-‘ilmi al-ishrāqīyi al-h.udūrī).43 ˙

Thus, the only difference between knowledge as presence as found in God and in human beings is due to how the presence of other things is brought about; human subjects will passively receive their content from what is genuinely other through their faculties, but God will have His as His own concomitants, just as is proper for a supreme agent. But this difference is all but irrelevant here, for the reason why the kind of presence we find in ourselves can assist in elucidating the presence of God is that it is similar to it in some fundamental respect. Suhrawardī is in considerable debt to Avicenna in this theological application of the phenomenon of self-awareness. Not only does he derive the narrow concept, particularly fitting for the purpose, of self-awareness from his predecessor, but quite possibly he was also inspired to apply it in this particular question by the context in which Avicenna’s excursion into it was embedded in the Ta‘līqāt. As we have seen, Avicenna may have been motivated to make some of his most striking claims about self-awareness by the task of accounting for the absolute unity and immediacy of God’s knowledge of Himself, for which he may have found a simile in human self-awareness.44 But in Suhrawardī, human experience, and its basis in selfawareness, is used to make sense not only of God’s knowledge of Himself but also of His creation. The human case can be cast in this explanatory role only if we disregard the psychological approach and focus on knowledge as a 42

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 487; emphasis added.


Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 487.


See Chapter 3.2, 56–61.

Self-awareness and knowledge as presence


given matter of experience, that is, as presence or the non-existence of absence. As the paradigmatic case of the latter, human self-awareness gives us an idea, as imperfect as it may be, of what immediate knowledge is like at its most intense. But it also enables Suhrawardī to explain in what sense it can be both one with and distinct from the presence of other cognitive content. By not being absent from itself as the first-personal field in which other things can become present, the self is there in immediate relation to but also independent of the content of its experience. At the same time, that content owes its presence to the self-aware subject for which it appears because, were it not for the subject as the field that enables presence, no content would be present in the first place. Furthermore, considered merely as such a field, the subject persists unaltered by any of the content that enters and leaves the field.45 It will be an I in an immutable sense regardless of what attributions the I will be connected to. In this sense, Suhrawardī can claim that God knows particular things as particulars, without the Avicennian qualification ‘in a universal way’, because as the same sort of first-personal field for the presence of objects as human subjects are, He is not changed by the entrance of particular things into His knowledge. Moreover, He has absolute illumination and dominion, and nothing escapes from Him, and past and future things – the forms of which are established by the celestial directors – are present to Him because He encompasses and illuminates the substrate of those forms, and the same holds of intellectual origins.46

God is aware of the universe in a hierarchical continuity, mediated by the celestial intellects and souls that are the causes of the sublunary realm. But this need not confine Him to cognition in universal terms, for the mediation of the celestial intellects and souls can be conceived in the same manner as the mediation of the human soul’s faculties in its knowledge of objects external to it. In spite of the mediation, the very individual things are brought into the field of presence that is God’s knowledge. By the same token, God retains His absolute unity as the pure non-existence of absence, because the qualifications due to the attribute of knowledge do not affect that lack of absence in any way. God remains Himself, because ‘His apprehension of Himself is His life’ as the light in which created things come to be.47 If the aforesaid is a correct interpretation of Suhrawardī’s concept of knowledge as presence and the decisive role of self-awareness in cancelling it out, his so called ‘Peripatetic’ works seem remarkably consistent with the 45

Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 488.


Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 488.


Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 489.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

48 full-blown illuminationism of the H · ikma al-ishrāq. In the passages we have considered, Suhrawardī has described how the self’s not being absent from itself, its self-awareness, provides the foundation for its cognitive relation to its body and by means of the body to the world. The body and the world, in both particular and universal terms, can be present to the self because the self is not absent from itself. If this relation suffers comparable neglect in the H · ikma al-ishrāq, this is merely due to the fact that Suhrawardī’s main concern in that work is to make sense of the metaphysical counterpart of knowledge as presence, that is, of appearance (z· uhūr).


Self-awareness and being as appearance

The H · ikma al-ishrāq begins with a dense but substantial criticism of the Peripatetic theory of science and metaphysics. When Suhrawardī’s subsequent account of the philosophical system he presents as its alternative is read in the light of this critical introduction, it is hard not to receive the impression that he intends to replace the intimately connected Peripatetic concepts of substance and definition with the new concepts of light (nūr) and appearance (z· uhūr). As we will see, Suhrawardī’s strategy of defining light and appearance in a manner that is independent of these Peripatetic foundational concepts is heavily reliant on the phenomenon of selfawareness. But in order to understand the introduction of the new concept, we have to describe briefly how Suhrawardī paves the way for it by criticizing the Peripatetic foundations of being and knowledge. In his discussion of the concept of substance, or substantiality, Suhrawardī sets out from the Peripatetic definition as transmitted by Avicenna. According to this received view, ‘“substance” is what does not exist in a subject, regardless of whether it is altogether independent of a substrate or inheres [in a substrate], but the substrate is not independent of it like “forms”’.49 This definition from the Talwīh.āt contrasts substance with the accident (al-‘arad) ˙ that exists in a subject. It also hints at the traditional division between different types of substances, that is, matter, form and their composite. The corresponding definition in the H · ikma al-ishrāq adds a reference to extramental reality; according to it, substance is ‘something that has an existence outside the mind’ and that ‘does not inhere in another so that it is entirely diffused’.50 This definition distinguishes substance from a state (hay’a) that exists in another, adding the qualification ‘so that it is entirely diffused’ (‘alā sabīli 48 50

Pace Eichner 2011, 139–140. 49 Talwīh.āt III.1, 177 Habībī; 5–6 Corbin. H · I I.3.3.52, 42 Walbridge and Ziai; 61 Corbin.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


al-shuyū‘i bi al-kullīya) in order to distinguish states from independently subsisting parts of a whole, which can nevertheless be said to be in the whole and thereby to exist in another. In light of this definition of substance, Suhrawardī detects four different kinds of substances in the world: three-dimensional substances with unique spatiotemporal locations, that is, bodies,51 the two constituents of bodies, that is, matter and form, and substances that are separate from matter, that is, intellects.52 For Suhrawardī, the problem with both of these definitions of substance is that they hinge upon negation: substance is that which does not exist in a subject. Now, negations do not refer to anything real immediately; there is no non-being as such. Instead, their truth requires a mind or an intellect which is capable of conceiving something that exists and considering it in relation to something else that is also conceived by the mind in some manner but that does not exist in the reality without the mind. When the mind considers these two things properly related, it then proceeds to deny or negate the non-existing of the existing thing. Because negations, and definitions based on the use of negation, are dependent on a mind or an intellect, Suhrawardī calls them mental or intellectual considerations (i‘tibārāt dhihnīya, i‘tibārāt ‘aqlīya).53 If the concept of substance cannot be defined positively, it will be a mere intellectual consideration, and as a result it will not refer immediately to anything real. And if substances depend for their very existence on a mind that postulates them, they cannot possibly provide a foundation for metaphysics as that which is said to be or to exist in a primary sense. Suhrawardī presents a sustained argument for his claim against the reality of mental considerations. If we postulate something like substantiality that is independent of the mind and as such the basis of all being, we end up with an infinite regress of substantialities. Suppose that substantiality1 is basic to the existence of the tree in front of me. If substantiality is a real basis of all that exists, then substantiality1 must have an ontologically prior substantiality2 at its basis, and so forth ad infinitum. Barring the possibility of an ordered infinite series in act, Suhrawardī suggests that we give up the supposition of substantiality as metaphysically foundational. The infinite regress argument is Suhrawardī’s frequent strategy to refute the

51 52 53

For this characterization of bodies, see H · I I.3.3.53, 43 Walbridge and Ziai; 62 Corbin. Cf. Talwīh.āt III.1, 177–178 Habībī; 6 Corbin. This division is also the basis for Avicenna’s discussion of substance in Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt II, see especially II.1.10, 48. Cf. H · I I.3.3.68, 50–51 Walbridge and Ziai; 71–72 Corbin; and Talwīh.āt III.2, 193, 196 Habībī; 22, 26 Corbin.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

mind-independent reality of mental considerations.54 In the Talwīh.āt he concludes his discussion of them by stating it as a general principle: any such thing, the supposition of which as a real entity leads into infinite regress, does not exist really but is a mere consideration of the mind or the intellect.55 Corresponding to his critique of the notion of substance, Suhrawardī finds fundamental problems with its epistemological counterpart, the concept of definition as the foundation of knowledge. He defines definition in rather traditional terms, though not without certain important qualifications. At the beginning of the section on expository propositions in the Talwīh.āt, the complete definition is said to be ‘a statement (al-qawl) which indicates the quiddity of something and combines all of its constituents, and in the case of principal realities (al-h.aqā’iqi al-as.alīya) [that is, substances], it is composed of their genera and differentiae’.56 Comparison with corresponding definitions in Avicenna shows that Suhrawardī has subtly added the word ‘all’ (kulluhā) where Avicenna merely speaks of the proximate genus and the differentia of the thing to be defined.57 Suhrawardī’s stronger requirement gives natural rise to the question of whether such stringent conditions can ever be met and whether we are likely to acquire complete definitions of anything. In the Talwīh.āt, these consequences remain implicit, but Suhrawardī’s explicit criticism of the concept of complete definition suggests that that is the direction he is heading towards.58 The crux of the critique becomes explicit in H · ikma al-ishrāq I.1.7, where Suhrawardī bluntly states that we can never be absolutely certain of having arrived at a complete definition which collects together all essential characteristics of the definiendum. To put the same in extensional terms, we can never be sure that our definition picks those and only those individuals that instantiate the essence we are interested in and that this collection is due to those and only those of their properties that really are essential and not merely accidental or concomitant to the essential properties.59 Related to this point, Suhrawardī also criticizes the Peripatetic method of arriving at a definition by means of an inductive inference. In order to be certain, 54 55 56 57 58 59

For an extended use of this argument in relation to various mental considerations, including substantiality, see H · I I.3.3.56–68; 45–51 Walbridge and Ziai; 65–72 Corbin. Talwīh.āt III.2, 196 Habībī; 26 Corbin. Talwīh.āt I.2.1, 18 Habībī. For discussion, see Ziai 1990, 100. See Ziai 1990, 100–102, who contrasts the Talwīh.āt formulation with Avicenna’s Kitāb al-h.udūd and Shifā’: al-Burhān. Ziai 1990, 113–114. H · I I.1.7.13–15, 8–11 Walbridge and Ziai; 18–21 Corbin. For Suhrawardī’s debt to Abū al-Barakāt alBaghdādī in this regard, see Ziai 1990, 115–116.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


induction must encompass all relevant cases, but since it is not possible to cover every individual instantiation of a species occurring in an infinite course of time, we can never be certain of not having overlooked an exceptional case that would force us to qualify our inductive definition.60 The definition of definition cited from the Talwīh.āt makes another subtle point by means of the phrase ‘is composed of’ (yutarakkaba), which is explicated in the Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt. In order that a complete definition be true and thus capable of producing knowledge of the thing defined, it must correspond to that thing. However, the external thing is one, an absolute unity with no independently subsisting constituents. This is not the case with the definition: it consists of the really distinct conceptual units of genera and differentiae, which are merely conjoined to each other in an act of composition, and this is incapable of bringing about a degree of unity corresponding to that of the external thing we strive to define. In view of this incoherence between absolute unity and unity through the composition of discrete parts, the best our definitions are capable of is describing the definienda.61 What is more, definitions will always rely on constituents that must be known before they can be applied in a definition. Since we cannot proceed infinitely with steps that define the terms used in subsequent definitions, we must admit that at least some things, such as the first intelligibles, must be known without definitions.62 Thus, our knowledge is not ultimately founded upon definition,63 and in the final analysis nothing will be known if we subscribe to a concept of knowledge based on definition. Suhrawardī’s intention is not to give up the notion of definition as something utterly useless in the pursuit of knowledge, but his criticism does amount to a straightforward rejection of definition as the foundation of knowledge. From here on, definitions come to serve in an instrumental role, perhaps a pedagogical one, in the acquisition of knowledge. Once this is understood, they should be conceived in conceptualist terms: they define linguistic concepts, but, in order to be capable of this, they require


61 62 63

H · I I.1.7.15, 10–11 Walbridge and Ziai; 20–21 Corbin. This problem of induction was seized upon by Avicenna, who developed a systematic notion of ‘experience’ (tajriba) as its alternative (see McGinnis 2003), a suggestion with which Suhrawardī unfortunately does not engage. For empirical premises in Suhrawardī, see Talwīh.āt I.3.3, 28–30 Habībī; H · I II.2.7.30, 27 Walbridge and Ziai; 41–42 Corbin; and Ziai 1990, 54. Mashāri‘ I.2.2, as edited in Ziai 1993, 115–116. For discussion, see Ziai 1990, 104, 108, 110–111. See Ziai 1990, 137–138. Related to this point, Suhrawardī makes a fourfold distinction between innate and acquired conception (tas.awwur) and assent (tas.dīq) in Talwīh.āt I.1.1, 4–5 Habībī. Cf. H · I I.1.7.14–15, 9–11 Walbridge and Ziai; 19–21 Corbin. See Ziai 1990, 116–117, 120–121.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

the full presence to the defining mind of that to which the relevant concept is applicable.64 In this function even ostensive definitions, which are not concerned with grasping the essential properties or causes of the thing defined, may serve a perfectly legitimate purpose, although they are of course not sufficient in their own right to provide knowledge of the thing defined.65 But how do we grasp the thing our definitions can merely describe? What is primarily known in Suhrawardī’s epistemological alternative? By the same token, if substances are not real, what is the primary sense in which being is spoken of? Suhrawardī builds his alternative philosophical system quasi-axiomatically by bluntly stating, first, his conception of what is primarily known, and second, his conception of what should be said to primarily exist. Let us consider the two axioms in some detail. If there is in existence that which does not need to be defined or elucidated, it is that which appears (al-z· āhir). Nothing is more apparent than light (al-nūr). Thus, nothing is more independent of definition.66

Notice that this introduction of the illuminationist technical term ‘light’ describes it solely in terms of appearing or being evident. All that is said is that light appears and is evident before and in spite of anything else, and as a result knowledge about it cannot be acquired through a definition or elucidation by means of other things that are known prior to it. Because of the opacity of Suhrawardī’s dense formulation, it is worth spelling out the rather obvious point that what he means by the most apparent thing can hardly be the quiddity of the optical phenomenon we usually speak of as light. Were that his intention, the very fact that the quiddity of light was a point of serious contention would have been a sufficient cause to judge his statement philosophically unsatisfactory.67 If we want to interpret him in philosophically charitable terms instead, we should stick to his words: in this context, the primary meaning of ‘light’ is the fact of appearing, that which appears insofar as it appears. Although the term will be described at greater length in the immediately following chapters, it is important to notice that the term is used in a very precise and rather narrow technical sense. 64 65 66 67

Mashāri‘ I.2.2, as edited in Ziai 1993, 115–116. See Ziai 1990, 108, 110–111, 125. Mashāri‘ I.2.5–6, as edited in Ziai 1993, 118–119. H · I II.1.1.107, 76 Walbridge and Ziai; 106 Corbin. Cf. Avicenna’s discussion of light in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs III.1–4, 91–115 Rahman. For an excellent overview of the theory, see Hasse 2000, 108–113.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


The second axiom concerns independence in existence: The independent (al-ghanī) is such that neither its essence (dhātuhu) nor its perfection is due to another. The dependent (al-faqīr) is such that something of it is due to other than its essence and perfection.68

If the first axiom addressed the question of what is primarily known, its follow-up makes an intimately connected point about the foundation of metaphysics: what should be said to exist in the primary sense of the word is that which is not dependent in any manner on anything other than itself. The subsequent exposition of the relation of the concepts of light (that which is most apparent) and of darkness (that which does not appear as such) makes it clear that the two points are inseparable: that which is most apparent and primarily known is also the only thing that can be said to exist independently, and therefore it is that which exists in the primary sense of the word. Prime examples of dark things are the material substances that we suppose to subsist out there in the world. Suhrawardī denies them of any positive reality; corresponding to the negativity at the core of the definition of substantiality, the darkness of material substances merely amounts to a lack or a privation of light. The only positive appearance they can have is when an adventitious light (al-nūr al-‘ārid ) falls upon them and makes them appear for another.69 Thus deprived of˙any positive reality, it is clear that material substances cannot be said to exist in the primary sense of the word. But the adventitious light that renders them apparent is also dependent on another, in fact doubly so, for it not only requires the other in which it advenes, it also must have a cause that is separate light (al-nūr al-mujarrad) or pure light (al-nūr al-mah.d ), pure appearance in and for itself.70 ˙ This discussion was pertinent to the seventeenth-century debate over the ‘primacy of quiddity’ (as.āla al-māhīya) as opposed to the ‘primacy of existence’ (as.āla al-wujūd).71 It should be pointed out that although appearances are always appearances of essences, Suhrawardī’s adoption of the concept of appearance as the foundation of metaphysics does not amount to a flat denial of the reality of existence. What is under attack is the Peripatetic view according to which substantiality is the paradigmatic mode of existence. The point comes out in the way in which the continuity 68 69

70 71

H · I II.1.2.108, 76 Walbridge and Ziai; 107 Corbin. Suhrawardī refers to these encounters between dark substances and adventitious lights as ‘barriers’ (barāzikh), presumably because they stand at the border of complete non-appearance and appearance. H · I II.1.3.109, 77–78 Walbridge and Ziai; 107–109 Corbin. For a concise outline of the debate, see Bonmariage 2007, 30–52.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

and identity of individual things is explained, for, according to Suhrawardī, the continuous existence of things such as the pine outside my window should be conceived not in terms of an underlying material substance that persists intact through the constant change of its accidental attributes but rather in terms of an essential unity due to the persistent cause of the stream of the pine’s constantly changing appearance. It was clear to both his thirteenth-century commentator Qutb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 1311) and Mullā S·adrā, perhaps the most prominent voice in the debate, that Suhrawardī simply speaks of existence as appearance; the stream of appearance is nothing but existence.72 In the fourth chapter, Suhrawardī emphasizes the dependence of all appearance on pure appearance by means of an anti-Avicennian point concerning the existence of individual entities. He states that their individuality is due to their apparent properties, and since these are real properties, they can only be due to light, which alone is real. As something inherently unreal, matter cannot provide the basis for individuality, and by the same token there is no individual substantiality beyond the appearances, anything like that is a mere intellectual consideration.73 The two principles in which Suhrawardī concludes the axiomatic introduction to his new system reiterate the dependence of adventitious lights, or appearances for another, on pure lights, or appearances in and for themselves. They also state that, unlike adventitious lights, pure lights are not accessible to a spatio-temporal ostensive reference.74 At this point, pure light or pure appearance has been axiomatically laid out as the basis of Suhrawardī’s new illuminationist metaphysics. Light is metaphysically foundational, and since pure light is appearance in and for itself, it is also immediately and primarily known. The Platonic overtones of all this are clear, but it can still be legitimately asked whether the concept of pure light or appearance is anything more than a play of words, a mental fiction every bit as fanciful and unreal as the concept of substance it is designed to replace. Moreover, in both of the axioms cited above, the crucial concept is characterized in strikingly negative terms: what is most apparent is not in need of definition or elucidation, and what exists independently is not due to another. If there is no way of making positive sense of these new concepts, Suhrawardī’s new theory only amounts to so much heated air. 72

73 74

See Qutb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Sharh. H · ikma al-ishrāq, ad II.1.1.107, 283–284; and S·adrā, al-Ta‘līqāt ‘alā Sharh. H · ikma al-ishrāq, ad II.1.1.107, 283. Ziai 1990, 166–171, seems to agree, but for a voice of concern see Walbridge 1992, 49–55. H · I II.1.4.111, 78–79 Walbridge and Ziai; 109–110 Corbin. H · I II.1.4.112–113, 79 Walbridge and Ziai; 110 Corbin.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


It seems that Suhrawardī is fully aware of his situation, for the decisive chapter II.1.5 considers the newly introduced concept of light from a completely different perspective: Whatever has a self which it is not unaware of (dhātun lā yaghfulu ‘anhā) is not dusky (ghāsiq) because of the appearance of itself to it (li ·z uhūri dhātihi ‘indahu). Nor is it a dark state in another, for even a luminous state is not light for itself (li dhātihā), let alone a dark [state]. Thus, it is a separate pure light which cannot be pointed at (nūrun mah.dun mujarradun lā yushāru ilayhi).75 ˙

The basis of the new approach is signalled in the very first sentence. In spite of the doubly negative expression we are now suddenly dealing with a positive phenomenon, that of appearance to self or self-awareness. Through a rhetorical process of excluding the alternatives, Suhrawardī states that whatever is self-aware is an instance of what he calls separate or pure light. Thus, after the axioms related to the concept of light discussed above, this new beginning can be characterized as an attempt at an ostensive elucidation of the new concept. That this is Suhrawardī’s strategy is corroborated by this brief elucidation being immediately followed by a series of familiar arguments for the immediacy and irreducibility of self-awareness. The first of these is the argument for immediacy by the rejection of any object corresponding to the self as well as the distinction between the two types of awareness of I and it.76 Added to this is an emphatic insistence on the constancy and continuity of self-awareness, a related denial of the identification of the self with the human body we find it to govern, and a denial of the substantiality of the self.77 This suggests that Suhrawardī’s concern is to find a commonplace phenomenon to which his newly introduced concept of light can refer and thus to find plausible support for his revisionist metaphysics, which henceforth has been introduced in an exclusively axiomatic manner. Suhrawardī sums up these elucidations in a new principle concerning light: [L]ight is that which appears in the reality of itself (al-z· āhiru fī h.aqīqati nafsihi) and which makes another appear by itself (al-muz· hiru li ghayrihi bi dhātihi),78 and it is more apparent in itself (az· haru fī nafsihi) than all [that] to 75 76 77 78

H · I II.1.5.114, 79 Walbridge and Ziai; 110–111 Corbin. Cf. the summary reiteration of this principle in II.1.5.120, 83 Walbridge and Ziai; 116 Corbin. H · I II.1.5.115, 80 Walbridge and Ziai; 111 Corbin. Cf. Chapter 5.1, 111–113. H · I II.1.5.116, 80–81 Walbridge and Ziai; 112–113 Corbin. Cf. Chapter 5.2, 121–123. An alternative would be al-maz· haru li ghayrihi bi dhātihi, ‘appearance for another by itself’. This would make sense in relation to the reference (omitted in the present quote) to adventitious lights, which appear to another but are light or appearance in themselves. However, I have chosen to follow


Self-awareness, presence, appearance whose reality appearance is additional . . . It is not so that light occurs and is then accompanied (yalzamuhu) by appearance, so that it would not be light in the definition of itself (nafsihi) and would be made apparent by another thing. Rather, it is that which appears, and its appearance is its lightness (nūrīyatuhu).79

According to this principle, light is nothing but appearing. Appearing is not an additional feature of light, not even a concomitant characteristic, but the very thing that the light’s being light amounts to. What is interesting, just as in the above, is that this claim is elucidated by the example of human selfawareness and the reiterated thesis that there is no substance behind self-awareness to which the phenomenon could be attributed as either an accidental or a concomitant feature.80 As a conclusion, Suhrawardī states that ‘whatever apprehends itself (kullu man adraka dhātahu) is a pure light, and every pure light appears to itself and apprehends itself (z· āhirun li dhātihi wa mudrikun li dhātihi)’.81 This reveals Suhrawardī’s motive for rejecting the Avicennian inference from self-awareness to a self-aware substance. If self-awareness belonged to a substance, it could not be applied in an ostensive elucidation of a novel metaphysical concept designed precisely to replace the very concept of substance. In order to use the phenomenon as the basis of his metaphysics, Suhrawardī has to render it primitive and denuded of all prior metaphysical commitments. A related abstractive operation is performed in relation to the claim, also familiar from Avicenna, according to which immediate self-awareness is concomitant to the incorporeality of an incorporeal substance.82 Suhrawardī’s point, supported by a somewhat suspicious argument according to which this claim entails the self-awareness of prime matter,83 is clearly to argue that as self-awareness, pure light or pure appearance cannot be reduced to or explained by means of any other allegedly more foundational concepts. And if that is the case, he should be warranted in adopting the phenomenon of self-awareness and the concept of light or appearance as the foundation of his metaphysics.

79 80 81 82 83

the reading preferred both by Corbin and by Walbridge and Ziai, which emphasizes the activity of pure lights in all appearances to another. Since the two readings are systematically compatible with each other, it is of course possible that Suhrawardī is purposefully ambiguous here. H · I II.1.5.117, 81 Walbridge and Ziai; 113–114 Corbin. H · I II.1.5.118, 81–82 Walbridge and Ziai; 114 Corbin. H · I II.1.5.118, 82 Walbridge and Ziai; 114 Corbin. H · I II.1.5.119, 82–83 Walbridge and Ziai; 114–116 Corbin. This is because prime matter, divested from the most elementary form of body in general, is incorporeal. If self-awareness is a concomitant of incorporeality, prime matter too will be aware of itself – about as implausible a claim as one can make in a Peripatetic context.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


But if the concept of light or appearance is supposed to be metaphysically foundational, a mere argument that there is such a thing as pure light will not suffice. In addition to bringing forth human self-awareness as an instance of pure light, one must also be able to explain how the concrete things in the world, which most certainly are not instances of self-awareness, can nevertheless be founded upon it. Suhrawardī tackles this task in an investigation into the different types of lights, which he embarks upon immediately after having laid out the foundation described above. This dense section contains in a nutshell Suhrawardī’s account of the world of objects that we perceive around us. Suhrawardī distinguishes between two types of light or appearance, light that is for itself (nūr li nafsihi) and light that is for another (nūr li ghayrihi),84 stating that light for another is based on the metaphysically prior light for itself. The two lights are hierarchically related for two reasons. First of all, the other to which the light for another appears has to appear to itself or be aware of itself in order to be able to apprehend the appearance of a light distinct from itself. Suhrawardī is unambiguous about this requirement: ‘What has no awareness of itself is not aware of another (lā yash‘uru bi ghayrihi man lā shu‘ūra lahu bi dhātihi).’85 But more importantly, nothing can appear to another unless it first appears to itself. In other words, the light appearing to another is caused by a light that appears to itself, or, formulated in a more accurate way, it is the external appearance of something that is pure appearance in and for itself.86 While this may sound unsettling, the historically informed reader will find it arguably less awkward once she perceives the Platonic underpinnings of Suhrawardī’s metaphysics. These are laid out in the second maqāla of the metaphysical section of the H · ikma al-ishrāq. The multiplicity manifest in the universe in spite of its absolutely one source is explained in chapter II.2.9 as due to a series of complex refractions and reflections of the single pure light of all lights.87 Towards the end of this account Suhrawardī mentions the lights that cause the appearance to another of concrete composite and single things. These ‘dominating luminous species’ (al-anwā‘ al-nūrīya al-qāhira), which subsist by themselves in the world of pure light,88 are the formal causes of concrete things, but unlike the Peripatetic material forms endorsed by 84 85

86 87 88

H · I II.1.6.121, 83–84 Walbridge and Ziai; 117–118 Corbin. H · I II.1.6.121, 84 Walbridge and Ziai; 117 Corbin. Cf. II.1.6.122, 84 Walbridge and Ziai; 118 Corbin: ‘When a thing makes something appear to another, that other must appear to itself before anything else can appear to it.’ H · I II.1.8.128, 86 Walbridge and Ziai; 120 Corbin. H · I II.2.9.150–152, 99–101 Walbridge and Ziai; 138–143 Corbin. H · I II.2.9.153, 101–102 Walbridge and Ziai; 143–144 Corbin.


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Avicenna, these forms subsist independently of their appearances in concrete.89 Each of them ‘is universal, not in the sense that it is predicated, but in the sense that it is equal in terms of the relation of emanation to these numerically many individuals (al-a‘dād), as though it were both the whole (al-kull) and the principle (al-as.al). This universal is not such that the conception of its meaning does not prevent the occurrence of sharing, for they recognize that it has an individual self and knows itself (lahu dhātan mutakhas..sas.atan wa huwa ‘ālimun bi dhātihi).’90 In a word, then, the pure lights or appearances behind the lights or appearances for another are Platonic forms, which account for the identity and stability of concrete appearances by being their immediate causes in a downward emanative process of illumination.91 Given the constancy of the emanative agency of the pure lights or specific forms, Suhrawardī no longer needs to rely on the supposition of a substance behind the external appearance, a substance that can never appear as such and that cannot even be positively defined, since the appearance itself, being the appearance of a self-subsistent form, is that which guarantees its identity. On the other hand, the self-subsistent form that is distinct from us cannot appear to us as it appears to itself; our sole access to it is by way of its individual instantiations, its appearances to another. Repeated encounters with several such instantiations will of course allow us to formulate a universal concept of the form, expressed in a definition, but this concept is not the same as the form’s appearance in itself to itself. We can grasp the common factor between the distinct individual instantiations only in an intellectual consideration that subsumes them under a single concept which they all are asserted to have a share in. This aspect of sharedness between many or commonness to many, indispensable for universality, must therefore be added as an intellectual consideration. But what is based on an act of the mind can be reductively explained by recourse to the mind and is therefore neither metaphysically nor epistemically primitive. The appearance itself that was subsumed under the universal, on the other hand, cannot be further analysed or explained, and in this sense it is foundational in both senses; in the metaphysical sense because it is due to nothing but appearance, and in the epistemic sense because it is the very thing known, the form itself in its appearance to another. 89 90 91

H · I II.2.12.168–169, 109 Walbridge and Ziai; 159–161 Corbin. H · I II.2.12.169, 109 Walbridge and Ziai; 160 Corbin. H · I II.3.4.193, 123 Walbridge and Ziai; 186 Corbin. The different properties of concrete things are due to the simultaneous agency of several pure lights (H · I II.2.11.172, 111 Walbridge and Ziai; 165 Corbin). On the hierarchical structure of the emanated pure lights, see H · I II.3.3.182–183, 118–119 Walbridge and Ziai; 177–179 Corbin. For an extended discussion of Suhrawardī’s subscription to the Platonic theory of forms, see Arnzen 2011, 135–143.

Self-awareness and being as appearance


Thus, here we also encounter Suhrawardī’s alternative to the epistemological concept of definition. He does not intend to deny our knowledge of the quiddities common to individual entities; according to Suhrawardī, like the majority of his philosophical contemporaries, we can grasp the equinity common to all horses that we perceive or imagine. But instead of a thought process leading to the definition of the concept of horse, this grasp should be understood in more straightforward terms: one simply grasps the appearance of the quiddity in the field of one’s awareness. There are no media that can be resorted to in an epistemological or psychological explanation of what takes place. Appearance cannot be demonstrated, it is unshareable, no one can make another aware of an appearance, and yet it is self-evident for the one aware of it.92 All sorts of preparatory processes, including syllogistic reasoning and attempts at definition, may assist in the occurrence of the appearance; they may help me see the horse in front of me in a manner I was not capable of before, but once the conditions are there, equinity simply appears to me in the individual horse. The preparatory processes do not cause the intuition in the proper sense of the term, because no awareness of appearance will necessarily follow from them. An exemplary instantiation of equinity has to appear to me as a single concrete object that I am presently aware of, for the definition requires something that it helps me to become better aware of. Moreover, the validity of the definition can only be assessed against the intuitive certainty I have on the basis of my indubitable awareness of the appearance of the definiendum.93 And finally, awareness of the appearance of equinity is not dependent on definition or syllogistic reasoning, for it is perfectly possible that someone simply sees the equinity in an excellent representative of the species without any prior preparation or instruction. Thus, the theories of definition and syllogistics concern what are at best educational tools.94 The intelligible form is a simple thing, and it is grasped in a simple act of intuition. We can express what is simple by means of the complex, but this does not render the reference of the expression complex in itself. In the final analysis, knowledge is not based on definition but amounts to the simple appearance of what is known, and the one who is aware of the appearance can dispense with the definition.95 In light of the above, the originality of Suhrawardī’s application of the phenomenon of self-awareness is difficult to exaggerate. Instead of an explanatory factor in the psychological investigation of human being, as in Avicenna, it furnishes him with the basis of an original reformulation of 92 94

93 H Cf. Ziai 1990, 121–122. · I I.3.4.70, 51–52 Walbridge and Ziai; 73 Corbin. Ziai 1990, 124–125. 95 H I I.3.70, 52 Walbridge and Ziai; 73 Corbin. Cf. Ziai 1990, 130, 134–135. ·


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

Platonic metaphysics. Admittedly, Suhrawardī is not entirely without precedents in this regard, for Ghazālī had already spoken of existence in terms of appearance and light, and of self-awareness as a particular type of light, in the first chapter of the Mishkāt al-anwār.96 However, as I hope to have shown, Suhrawardī constructs his novel metaphysics upon self-awareness in full awareness of the originality of his move and with an argumentative rigour that is all but missing in Ghazālī’s work, which is ultimately little more than a paraphrastic account, in light of the famous verse from the .sūra of light (Q 24:35) and the h.adīth of veils, of Neoplatonic cosmology and the situation of human being in it, designed to edify and invigorate its reader rather than establish a secure foundation for a philosophical system. Suhrawardī, on the contrary, attempts to elucidate his chosen foundational concept of metaphysics in an ostensive fashion by stating that pure light is the self-awareness which each of his readers will, upon introspective analysis, find herself to consist in. For Suhrawardī, self-awareness is something that no theoretical account can explain. The best he can do is try to make it evident for his interlocutors by means of the argumentative pointers he inherits from Avicenna. However, what is thereby paid attention to can of course be constructively applied in subsequent theorizing, and this is exactly what Suhrawardī does in the metaphysical section of the H · ikma al-ishrāq. Despite the noble Islamic and Zoroastrian history of light metaphors to which the book occasionally refers,97 ‘pure light’ is first and foremost introduced as a name for a constant feature of experience, or, to put it another way, the term is characterized by purely experiential means, ostensively as it were.


Degrees of self-awareness

As we have seen, Suhrawardī cashes out the concept of pure light or appearance to self, the foundation of the illuminationist metaphysics, by means of the phenomenon of self-awareness as delineated by Avicenna. 96 97

Ghazālī, Mishkāt al-anwār I.32, 12–13; I.40–41, 16; and I.49, 19. Cf. H · I II.2.2.138, 92 Walbridge and Ziai; 128–129 Corbin; II.2.10.159, 104 Walbridge and Ziai; 149–150 Corbin; II.2.12.166, 108 Walbridge and Ziai; 106–108 Corbin; II.4.1.201, 128 Walbridge and Ziai; 193 Corbin; II.4.3.208–210, 131–132 Walbridge and Ziai; 198–201 Corbin. The systematic use of this mythology is scant in comparison to the philosophical ingredients, and to my mind the Corbinian ‘hierohistorical’ account of Suhrawardī as a reviver of an ancient Persian Platonism (see Corbin 2009a, XLIII–LXII; Corbin 2009b, 33–55; an extended treatment of this conviction is Corbin 1971, vol. II) drastically overstates its importance. I am neither alone nor the first in claiming this; for a consistent argument that the philosophical tradition is much more determinative of Suhrawardī, see Walbridge 2000. Corbin’s interpretation is set in a historical context in Walbridge 2001, 90–91, 105–110.

Degrees of self-awareness


Later on he revisits this connection, stating explicitly that every pure light shares this particular type of self-awareness with us human beings and moreover that this is because self-awareness is constitutive to pure lights, that in which being a pure light consists: It has been shown that your I-ness is a separate light and apprehends itself (mudrikun li nafsihi), and that separate lights do not differ in their realities (h.aqā’iq). Thus, the whole must apprehend itself (mudrikan li dhātihi), since what is necessary for something is also necessary for that which shares the reality with it.98

Thus, insofar as there are other pure lights, I can assume that they are essentially similar to what I have found myself to be. This is because as pure lights we share or participate in one and the same reality, that of being light. Furthermore, since I have found myself to be nothing but self-awareness, I am warranted to conclude that the being of other pure lights also consists solely of their awareness of themselves, in exactly the same sense as I am aware of myself.99 It is important to note that the shared reality does not entail any kind of dissolution or merging into the radiance of a single light. Instead, Suhrawardī holds on steadfastly to the idea that the multiplicity apparent in the world is genuine and real, as a consequence of which pure lights, although participating in a single reality, are distinct from each other. This gives rise to a version of the problem of individuation which Avicenna tackled in Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3 and which we have discussed in some detail above:100 if pure lights are such only because of their self-awareness, how can they be distinguished from each other? Interestingly enough, Suhrawardī tacitly refers to Avicenna’s solution in the psychological section of the Shifā’ when he addresses the question of the individuality of human beings post-mortem.101 His version of the list of factors that allow an intellectual sort of distinction (imtiyāzan ‘aqlīyan) between individual human beings is made up of ‘their self-awareness (shu‘ūrihā bi dhātihā), their awareness of their lights and their illumination (shu‘ūrihā bi anwārihā wa ishrāqātihā), and individuation based on the governance of fortresses’, the second and third factor presumably summing up the properties due to the body (or ‘fortress’) elaborated at greater length

98 99 101

H · I II.1.8.127, 86 Walbridge and Ziai; 120 Corbin; cf. II.1.8.126, 86 Walbridge and Ziai; 120 Corbin. This point is also noted by Ziai 1990, 150–152. 100 Chapter 3.1. H · I II.5.2.243, 148 Walbridge and Ziai; 228–229 Corbin.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

by Avicenna. None of the factors other than self-awareness can, however, be used to account for the individuation of pure lights in general terms, since not every pure light is a ‘managing light’, or, in more familiar terms, a soul that governs a body. Thus, pure lights have to be distinguished from each other by features inherent to their being light. Suhrawardī locates this feature in the degree of luminosity unique to each of the pure lights. According to Suhrawardī, lights form a hierarchically ordered series of emanation, reflection and refraction in which a proper place is designated to each and every light by virtue of its degree of luminosity. If their mutual differences were due to anything external to luminosity, each pure light would have a constituent in itself, which, not being light, would not appear to itself – a consequence in blatant contradiction to the manner in which the concept of pure light was axiomatically sketched to begin with.102 This idea of degrees of luminosity ultimately allows Suhrawardī to conceive of the entire realm of existence, including God as the Light of all lights, by means of a single term: in the final analysis, all is light in one and the same sense but in different degrees. But if light and luminosity amount to self-awareness, and if luminosity allows degrees, then Suhrawardī finds himself committed to the view that self-awareness allows degrees, that one can be more or less aware of oneself. Such a view is diametrically opposed to Avicenna’s central insight according to which self-awareness amounts to the first perfection of human beings. As we have seen, according to Avicenna each of us is aware of herself in the very precise sense that she will find all content of experience given to her in the first person in a manner which endures intact and unchanged from the very beginning of her existence until the proverbial end of time. This first-personality is not subject to change; one will be an I regardless of whether as a flying man, a newborn, a vile sinner or a virtuous sage fully developed in terms of knowledge, the second perfection of human being. On the contrary, Suhrawardī not only allows for degrees in human self-awareness, but in full knowledge embraces the farther reaching point that all pure lights, including God, are each an I in the same sense as we are, only somehow more so. Although it is part and parcel of the metaphysical tradition to conceive of God as a cognitive agent similar but superior to ourselves, the shift of this idea to the basis of self-awareness allows Suhrawardī to make sense of 102

Cf. H · I II.1.8.126, 86 Walbridge and Ziai; 120 Corbin.

Degrees of self-awareness


God’s awareness of Himself in a manner arguably more profound than his Peripatetic predecessors.103 By means of a variation of the traditional argument from contingency, Suhrawardī first argues that there must be a necessary being: given that each of the manifold lights is caused by another light, they are all necessary through another; since an ordered infinite series is impossible, and since nothing can exist without being necessary in itself or having been made necessary through another, there has to be an end to the postponement of necessity, an end which is necessary in itself.104 Furthermore, since pure lights are highest in the hierarchy of being, and since existence can only be bestowed in a downward order of causation, only another pure light is capable of bringing about a pure light.105 The necessary being must therefore be a pure light, an appearance to itself in itself, and this to the highest possible degree – a Light of all lights. Finally, there can be only one such light, for were there two or more, these would have to differ due to something additional to their merely being lights. Since such a differentiating factor could be neither a light (for this would render the Light of lights necessary through another) nor a non-apparent state (for in that case the Light of lights would not be a pure light), nothing is left to differentiate between two lights necessary in themselves, and thus it makes no sense to conceive of more than one Light of lights. As a result, [i]t is thus established that the Light of lights is separate from all else and nothing is associated with it. It cannot be conceived that there is [anything] more splendorous than it. Since the point [of speaking about] something’s knowing itself goes back to its self’s appearance to itself (raja‘a h.ās.ilu ‘ilmi al-shay’i bi nafsihi ilā kauni dhātihi ·z āhiratan li dhātihi), which is pure lightness the appearance of which is not through another, the life and selfknowledge (‘ilmuhu bi dhātihi) of the Light of lights are not added to its self (dhātihi). This has already been shown to you in the case of every separate light.106

The passage speaks of self-awareness as the appearance of the self to itself along the lines familiar from the section in which the concept of pure light 103

104 105 106

For an example of Avicenna’s use of human cognitive categories to make sense of God, cf. Ta‘līqāt, 158–161, and the discussion in Chapter 3.2, 56–61. Suhrawardī’s explication of God’s awareness of Himself by means of our self-awareness also has an obvious parallel in his introduction of the concept of knowledge as presence. H · I II.1.9.129, 87 Walbridge and Ziai; 121–122 Corbin. For an Avicennian formulation, cf. for instance Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Ilāhīyāt VIII.1.4–6, 258–259. H · I II.1.9.132, 88 Walbridge and Ziai; 123 Corbin. H · I II.1.9.134, 89 Walbridge and Ziai; 124 Corbin.


Self-awareness, presence, appearance

was introduced by means of the arguments delineating the Avicennian phenomenon of primitive self-awareness. All that is new is the connection of this phenomenon to God’s awareness of Himself. Although it is possible, indeed natural, to interpret the description of God as a self-aware subject to be but a variation of the familiar Peripatetic theme of thought thinking itself, the explicit connection to the most primitive level of self-awareness results in an important difference. As a subject of perfect intellection in which the subject and the object completely coincide, God will at best remain a somewhat remote example of the cognitive second perfection proper to though seldom reached by human beings. Moreover, God is not only a self-knower, but also a creator: his self-intellection is the cause for all other things, which makes it highly doubtful whether our selfunderstanding can really be compared to His. For Suhrawardī, however, God is self-awareness in exactly the same sense as I, regardless of my cognitive progress or lack thereof, always find myself to be – only to a greater degree. Although Avicenna too can be seen to ground his account of God’s self-intellection on his psychological theory of intellection in general and human intellection in particular,107 the difference in emphasis is clear. Even if self-awareness does play a role in intellection by making each act of understanding exclusive to the first-personal subject to whom it belongs, Avicenna’s account revolves around the content of intellection – and in this regard there is literally a world of difference between God and the human being in its cognitively undeveloped state. In addition to this theological concern, Suhrawardī speaks of human development towards the perfection proper to us in terms of an increase of light and therefore an increase in self-awareness. The illuminationist terminology fails to hide the fact that he here presents a rather straightforward paraphrase of the traditional doctrine of emanation and return. According to Suhrawardī, all lights are driven by an innate love (mah.abba), desire (shawq) or passion (‘ishq) for the higher lights that are their source;108 this unique upward drive, as exclusive to each light as its self-awareness is, accounts for the particular features of the type of epistrophe proper to it. In the case of human beings, the return to the perfection of our origin amounts to a detachment from the body and a

107 108

Cf. for instance the reference to psychology in the theological context of Ishārāt, namat. 4, 146. This connection between the two parts of the Ishārāt is discussed in Adamson 2011a. H · I II.2.6.147, 97–98 Walbridge and Ziai; 135–137 Corbin.

Degrees of self-awareness


corresponding increase in terms of knowledge.109 This is further qualified by a claim, inherited from Avicenna,110 that the desire for the particular type of pleasure that is proper to human beings is conditional upon the human subject’s apprehending (idrāk) the proper object of desire as pleasurable. Thus, a human being may fail to apprehend her present state in the light of her true self, in relation to what she really is and what she should therefore strive to be; in other words, one may fail to recognize oneself as the sort of thing one really is, that is, as a pure light, and consequently fail to pursue the goal, proper to a pure light, of becoming more luminous and better aware of oneself.111 But merely stating that self-awareness allows degrees is not a particularly convincing move unless one appends to it at least an elementary elucidation of what those degrees amount to. How am I to conceive of the difference in degree between God’s self-awareness and my own? How is it possible to be more or less an I than I presently am? Moreover, isn’t it possible that such a difference, although seemingly conceived in purely quantitative terms, will ultimately make God’s awareness of Himself just as inconceivable and inaccessible to me as His self-intellection, which brings the world into existence, is different from my self-intellection as a subject in and passive to that world? Finally, does all this not compromise the validity of Suhrawardī’s application of self-awareness, along the lines described above, in laying the foundation for his new metaphysics? Unfortunately, the elucidation of the sense in which self-awareness is gradual is awkwardly underdeveloped in Suhrawardī. While he clearly endorses the idea, it is not obvious whether he recognizes that it amounts to a departure from the Avicennian concept of self-awareness. He does make enough observations to enable a rational reconstruction of at least the elements of a theory behind the idea,112 but in the end such reconstructions are bound to remain more or less speculative. A historical study of the development of the concept of self-awareness in Islamic philosophy must remain closer to Suhrawardī’s explicit words, carefully charting the loose ends but refraining from tying them up too neatly, as awkward as the result may seem. This is particularly the case with the idea of the gradation of selfawareness, since it seems to be picked up and explicated at far greater length 109 110 111 112

H · I II.5.2.237, 145 Walbridge and Ziai; 223–224 Corbin. Cf. II.2.12.171, 110–111 Walbridge and Ziai; 162–165 (with a reference to the Arabic Plotinus); and II.4.8.226, 139 Walbridge and Ziai; 213–214 Corbin. Cf. Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 8, 191–194. H · I II.5.2.238, 145–146 Walbridge and Ziai; 224–225 Corbin. I have suggested one possible reconstruction in Kaukua 2011, see especially 151–156.


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by Mullā S·adrā, though not without a fundamental revision to the concept of the self involved in self-awareness. In light of that departure, Suhrawardī appears to represent a point of conflict between the Avicennian description of self-awareness as a static feature of I-ness and the idea that one can develop in terms of one’s I-ness and thereby to be more or less of an I. As we can see, the conflict can be resolved only by surrendering one or the other thesis.

chapter 7

Mullā ·S adrā on self-awareness

Since the vigorous promotion of his philosophy by his Qajar commentators in the nineteenth century, the name of Muh.ammad ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Yahyā al-Qawāmī al-Shīrāzī, better known by the honoraries S·adr al-Dīn, S·adr alMuta’allihīn and Mullā S·adrā, has been virtually synonymous with Islamic philosophy in the Shi’ite seminaries of Iran. He is venerated for his synthesis of the rival philosophical, theological and mystical currents of his time into an original system that represents the summit of the philosophical interpretations of the Muh.ammadan revelation. In an œuvre of encyclopedic proportions, S·adrā does indeed develop a philosophy that, as we will soon see, is genuinely novel yet at the same time brewed from recognizable ingredients, mainly from three traditions of learning. The first of these goes back to Avicenna and lives on in the theological tradition of critical commentary on his thought, while the second is represented by Suhrawardī and his ishrāqī commentators and the third by the akbarī tradition of theoretically oriented Sufism founded upon the heritage of Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240). But in spite of his considerable learning, S·adrā’s own assessment is that the most significant influence came not from his predecessors but straight from the Source, for time and again he emphasizes the crucial impact of personal inspired intuition upon the development of his philosophical system.1 S·adrā’s philosophical career is closely interwoven with the cultural politics of the early S·afavid state. Born in 1571 or 1572, S·adrā left his native Shīrāz in his early twenties to pursue the studies in philosophy and the Islamic sciences that he seems to have begun on his own, eventually arriving at Isfahān, the S·afavid capital.2 Under the tutelage of Bahā’ al-Dīn al-‘Āmilī (d. 1620/1), he is reported to have acquired a level of knowledge in the Islamic sciences that was unprecedented among his philosophical 1 2

For an example of this topos, see Asfār, muqaddima, I.14–15, 17–18; cf. Rizvi 2005, 231. Rizvi 2007, 5–8, 10.



Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

predecessors,3 and this was complemented by a profound schooling in philosophy by one of the most original Islamic thinkers, Mīr Muh.ammad Bāqir Astarabādī (d. 1631), better known as Mīr Dāmād and often referred to by the honorary ‘Third Teacher’ (after Aristotle and al-Fārābī).4 S·adrā’s rise to prominence in the intellectual milieu of Isfahān seems to have been met with considerable opposition from the more conservative scholars of the city.5 Prompted at least in part by the adverse reception, he returned to Shīrāz in 1601–2, but sustained opposition in his hometown, once renowned for its thriving philosophical scene,6 eventually inspired him to retreat to the small village of Kahak near Qom, the present centre of Shi’ite learning.7 S·adrā himself reports that in Kahak he largely retired from public and collegial life, focusing instead on ascetic and meditative practices. As he recalls in the preface to his magnum opus, his constant efforts in prayer and ascesis led to a series of intuitions which may have been instrumental in convincing him that the ishrāqī doctrine, which he had adopted from his teacher, was prone to fundamental problems. These hinged especially on Mīr Dāmād’s adoption of the notion of quiddity as the basis of his metaphysics, the famous theory of as.āla al-māhīya, or ‘primacy of quiddity’, against which S·adrā eventually developed an alternative based on existence.8 He held firmly to this in both writing and teaching for the rest of his career through the itinerant years that finally settled him at the turn of the 1620s in a prestigious teaching position in Shīrāz, where he remained until his death in Basrā on a seventh pilgrimage, most likely in 1635/6.9 The S·adrian corpus consists of more than fifty works, ranging from multi-volume summae to brief treatises on strictly defined topics. In rough terms, these can be divided into two main classes.10 On the one hand, S·adrā wrote a number of works in the so-called Islamic sciences, the most prominent among which are his three treatises on the principles of Qur’ānic exegesis (Asrār al-āyāt wa anwār al-bayyināt, Mafātīh. al-ghayb and Mutashābihāt al-Qur’ān), his large commentary on selected .sūras of 3 5 6 7 8 9 10

4 Ziai 1996, 636; Nasr 1996, 643. Rizvi 2007, 9–13; Dabashi 1996, 621–632; Ziai 1996, 636. Corbin 1964, 3; Morris 1981, 16; Dabashi 1996, 623, 627. For a considered critique of this received view, however, see Rizvi 2007, 31–36. For a concise account of philosophy in early sixteenth-century Shīrāz, see Pourjavady 2011, 1–44. Rizvi 2007, 14. Asfār, muqaddima, I.7–14; Mashā‘ir VI.85, 35; cf. Kalin 2003, 27–28. For an excellent overview of the debate between as.āla al-māhīya and as.āla al-wujūd, see Bonmariage 2007, 28–53. Rizvi 2007, 14, 22–30. Cf. Kalin 2003, 35–60. Rizvi 2007, 52–111, to my knowledge the most complete bibliography of S·adrā, opts for a more nuanced classification.

Mullā ·S adrā on self-awareness


the Qur’ān, and his commentary to Abū Ja‘far ibn Muh.ammad ibn Ya‘qūb al-Kulaynī’s (d. 941) Us.ūl al-Kāfī, the first section of one of the most authoritative Shi’ite collections of ahādīth. We can also include a number of practically oriented works of ethical guidance in this class.11 The other class consists of S·adrā’s philosophical works, among which the uncontested pride of place belongs to the immense mature work, al-H · ikma al-muta‘āliya fī al-asfār al-arba‘a (‘The Transcendent Wisdom in Four Journeys’, 1606–1628), our main source in the present study. Although modelled on earlier endeavours at the summary presentation of the philosophical explanation of the world, S·adrā’s magnum opus deviates from the classical Peripatetic model by its decided emphasis on metaphysics and eschatology at the cost of the natural sciences.12 Other important philosophical treatises are al-Mabda’ wa al-ma‘ād (completed in 1606), a relatively early work on the origination of the cosmos from God and its return to Him, the Kitāb al-mashā‘ir, a concise presentation of S·adrā’s theory of existence as the foundation of metaphysics written after 1628, al-Shawāhid al-rubūbīya fī al-manāhij al-sulūkīya, a more condensed summa than the Asfār completed before 1631, and al-H · ikma al-‘arshīya (completed between 1631 and 1634), a late work with an eschatological emphasis.13 S·adrā also wrote several minor treatises in philosophy as well as commentaries on works by Avicenna, Suhrawardī and other philosophers.14 Much like in Suhrawardī’s case, earlier Western scholarship, with Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr at the spearhead,15 has tended to emphasize the mystical aspects of S·adrā’s thought and thereby to downplay the importance of his consistent systematic and analytic striving, immediately evident in works like the Asfār.16 For a long time, the only exception was Fazlur Rahman’s monograph The Philosophy of Mullā ·S adrā,17 now obsolete in many regards, but a number of studies published since 2000 are beginning to consolidate the image of an original and profound philosopher who should be considered a peer of his most luminous European contemporaries.18 Reading S·adrā, it is difficult not to recognize the analytic acuity that he 11 12 13 15 16


Cf. Kalin 2003, 35–41; Rizvi 2007, 69–91. The structure of the Asfār is analysed in Arnzen 2007. For changes in philosophical summae between Avicenna and S·adrā, see Eichner 2007. Rizvi 2007, 52–68. 14 Rizvi 2007, 69–77, 91–111. Corbin 1964, 1971; Nasr 1963, 1978. A later but influential representative of this strand is Morris 1981. For a critique of this line of interpretation, see Ziai 1996, 638–639; and for a concise defence, Nasr 1996, 645 and 659. The different approaches in contemporary scholarship on S·adrā are lucidly described in Rizvi 2009, 4–14. Rahman 1975. 18 Jambet 2002, 2008; Bonmariage 2007; Rizvi 2009; Kalin 2010; Rustom 2012.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

applies to his vast reading, most evident in the manner, ubiquitous in the Asfār, in which he painstakingly develops his own thought in a critical relation to one or several of his predecessors. The authors brought into play are not exclusively philosophers, but even when dealing with theological or Sufi interlocutors S·adrā’s aims and foci remain thoroughly philosophical and systematic.19 Methodologically, S·adrā ceaselessly asserts the indispensability of intellect and reason.20 But instead of dwelling on this general level of debate, I would rather introduce the following study of S·adrā’s treatment of self-awareness as a case in point to support the claim that he should be read first and foremost as a philosopher, albeit one that departs from the tradition in many important respects. In order to highlight the departures in the topic of self-awareness and selfhood, we must begin by establishing that he stands on a shared ground with his predecessors. A brief glance into S·adrā’s discussion of knowledge and intellection, as well as into the arguments for the immateriality of the soul in the psychological section of the Asfār, suffices to show that he imports most of the arguments Avicenna and Suhrawardī designed to describe and delimit the phenomenon of self-awareness. In the following, I will briefly revisit the S·adrian versions of the flying man, the related argument from the constancy of self-awareness, the argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness and the argument from the unity of experience.


Four Avicennian arguments The flying animal

One of the most amusing features of S·adrā’s attempt at establishing the immateriality of the animal soul in the second chapter of the psychological section of the Asfār is his sustained reliance on Avicennian arguments. This is amusing because these arguments were originally designed precisely to distinguish the entity that functions as a soul in the human body from its functional counterparts in non-human animals. This difference in application is most striking in S·adrā’s reappropriation of the flying man, now recast as an animal. 19 20

Moreover, as Rustom 2012 shows, there seem to be no doctrinal breaches between S·adrā’s philosophical and theological works. This is substantiated by his hierarchical classification of the cognitive methods available to human beings. See, for instance, Asfār IV.10.4, IX.315; and IV.11.26, IX.464–465.

Four Avicennian arguments


Another demonstration that the animal is not the sensible structure is that we say: if an animal is supposed such that it is created all at once, and is created perfect, but is veiled in its senses from beholding what is external, and that it is floating in a void or in open air so that the air’s volume does not collide with it and it does not sense any qualities, and its limbs are separated so that they do not touch each other, then in this state it will apprehend itself (dhātahu) and ignore all of its external and internal organs, or rather, it will affirm itself (dhātahu) without affirming a dimension for it, neither length nor breadth nor any direction; even if it imagined a position, a direction or some organ in that state, it would not imagine it to be a part of itself (dhātihi). It is evident that what one is aware of is different from what one ignores; and so its itness (huwīyatuhu) is different from all the organs.21

Notwithstanding the argument’s reappropriation for the animal case, a number of clues betray that S·adrā is reading from Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1.22 However, it is worth pointing out that by replacing the human being with an animal S·adrā loses whatever plausibility the original argument may have had. Avicenna’s thought experiment hinged on the givenness of selfawareness in the interlocutor’s own experience; the flying man was a means of bracketing aspects of experience that prevent us from directing our attention at the type of narrow self-awareness each of us has due to our shared nature. Other animals differ from us in many respects, not least in terms of cognitive capacities, and as a consequence we cannot claim intuitive access to animal experience. Thus, animal experience is not available as the sort of immediate evidence one can plausibly build an argument upon. On the contrary, if self-awareness is intimately related to our being intellectual subjects, as Avicenna seems to have thought, its application in an argument for the immateriality of the sub-intellectual animal soul appears even more suspect.23 Another sign of S·adrā’s relapse from Avicenna’s argumentative rigour is his characterization of the argument as a demonstration (burhān) instead of a reminder (tanbīh) or a pointer (ishāra), as Avicenna had presented it. S·adrā also sidesteps Avicenna’s emphatic requirement that the interlocutor must 21 22


Asfār IV.2.2, VIII.47. There are both direct quotes (‘created all at once and . . . perfect’, ‘floating in a void or in . . . air’, ‘limbs are separated so that they do not touch’, ‘affirm itself without affirming . . . neither length nor breadth’) and considerable similarities on the level of thought, for instance the added qualification of a per impossibile act of imagining a body, and the explication of the argument’s logical basis (what is affirmed as an explicit object of awareness is different from what is not so affirmed). For the Avicennian text, see Chapter 2.1, 35. Cf. Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.327–328, where S·adrā suggests that animals are incapable of self-awareness in the absence of other contents of experience. This difference, however, is not due to their alleged corporeality but due to the fact that they are not capable of intellection.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

personally perform the act of imagining herself into the flying man’s situation and chooses to speak in passive about supposing (law furida) the animal in ˙ the void or the open air. Two possible reasons for S·adrā’s less rigorous take on the thought experiment readily suggest themselves. First of all, by the seventeenth century the argument had become a firm part of the psychological tradition. Earlier commentators, such as Ibn Kammūna, had attempted to increase the strength of the argument by developing it into a demonstrative syllogism.24 Informed by this line of development, S·adrā may simply have considered the argument worthy of the status of demonstration. On the other hand, S·adrā’s claim that non-human animals are aware of themselves in the same sense as human beings may have been based on an argument earlier on in the same section which infers self-awareness from the perception of pain and pleasure. An animal’s perception of pain and pleasure, which S·adrā seems to consider obvious from elementary observation of animal behaviour, concerns pain and pleasure not in absolute terms but rather as specific to the very perceiving animal itself. Thus, the animal must be aware of itself in addition to its perception of the object causing the pain or the pleasure.25 In either case, S·adrā’s move remains a significant departure from Avicenna.26 However, as I think will become obvious from his consistent use of familiar arguments, this does not mean that the phenomenon his concept of self-awareness was based upon was different from Avicenna’s. Rather, the departure signals S·adrā’s different application of the phenomenon; instead of an Avicennian attempt at making sense of the individual existence of an intellectual, hence immaterial entity, S·adrā believes it should be an elementary feature of a much broader scope of mental, and thereby immaterial existence. This expansion of the scope of self-awareness becomes more explicit in a later chapter designed to argue for the independence of the soul’s cognitive faculties from their corporeal instruments. For this purpose, S·adrā brings forth the following piece of evidence: 24

25 26

See Muehlethaler 2009. However, Ibn Kammūna’s attempt, although a masterful combination of a number of Avicennian insights, did not do away with the fact that the premises of the demonstration had to be acquired by means of a first-personal performance of the thought experiment. Asfār IV.2.2, VIII.45–46. This argument is suggested to provide the basis of the flying animal by Jambet 2002, 229. If Avicenna had a theory of animal self-awareness, it must have been based on acts of estimative apprehension. Thus, despite certain similarities, the phenomenon would have been different from the self-awareness instantiated in human beings. For a reconstruction of Avicenna’s theory of animal self-awareness, see Kaukua and Kukkonen 2007. S·adrā was quite probably aware of this, for he paraphrases an Avicennian discussion on animal awareness in Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.326–328.

Four Avicennian arguments


When the human being’s external faculties and corporeal senses are still due to sleep, lack of consciousness (al-ighmā’) or [something] else, he will often find of himself (yajidu min nafsihi) that he hears, sees, smells, touches, strikes and walks. Thus, he has in himself (fī dhātihi) these sensations (al-mashā‘ir), faculties and instruments without deficiency or the need of anything other than them.27

Curiously enough, this argument seems to be based on an intuition that is diametrically opposed to that behind the flying man. At the same time, one cannot help thinking of the sleeping or the intoxicated person featured in the Ishārāt version of the flying man; yet here we have S·adrā claim that even in such seemingly unconscious states one will remain aware of one’s capacity to perceive. For S·adrā, this is evidence of the absolute immateriality not just of the intellectual, but also of the imaginative and even the perceptual mode of mental existence. Immersed in acts of perception that demand our complete attention, we may fail to notice that the perceptions themselves are modes of our own existence, not that of an external object supposedly independent of and causally active upon us. Nevertheless, both the capacity to perceive and the act of perception are in us. Later on in the same context S·adrā formulates the case even more straightforwardly with important corroboration from the pseudo-Aristotelian Theology: Thus, his self is by itself (dhātuhu bi dhātihi) sight for the apprehension of what is seen and hearing for the apprehension of what is heard, and similarly for every species of sensibles. Thus, in itself (fī dhātihi) it is hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch for itself (li dhātihi). You already know from the preceding the unity of sense with what is sensed, and so he is the sense of all senses.28

Thus, although S·adrā recognizes the validity of the flying man, and thereby the concept of self-awareness it hinges upon, he subscribes to this aspect of Avicennian heritage only with two important qualifications. The scope of self-awareness must be broader and include both the intellectual and the sub-intellectual mode of mental existence. On the other hand, the last passage in particular seems to call for a full reassessment of the question of whether self-awareness is really separable from other constituents of human experience. The motive and the immense consequences of these qualifications will be our main concern in the next chapter.


Asfār IV.8.7, IX.90.


Asfār IV.8.7, IX.92.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness Argument from the constancy of self-awareness

Closely related to the intuition behind the flying man is the Avicennian distinction between the constancy of self-awareness and the intermittency of all acts of awareness concerning the body. This distinction yields the familiar argument: were the soul or the self corporeal, it would have to be aware of the organ in which it resides and which is therefore indispensable for its existence, whenever it is aware of itself; but since we are not constantly aware of any organ, let alone the entire body, although we are constantly aware of ourselves, we must reject the supposition and assert that the soul is incorporeal.29 This argument appears repeatedly in the psychological section of the Asfār,30 mostly with rather insignificant additions to or deviations from the Avicennian original. An exception to this rule, however, is a passage in which S·adrā engages in a debate that the argument had aroused between the two commentators of the Ishārāt, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and Nas.īr al-Dīn alT.ūsī (d. 1274).31 In one of his counterarguments, Rāzī had challenged the validity of Avicenna’s inference by saying that it presupposes the human soul to be always aware of all of its attributes and concomitants, which does not seem plausible on the basis of our experience.32 The simple fact that I am sometimes unaware of the body is sufficient to establish that my body is not constitutive of or concomitant to me only if we suppose that I am constantly aware of whatever is constitutive of or concomitant to me. In spite of S·adrā’s extremely elliptical rendering of the argument, it seems to rely on the salient point that the soul is not in every respect transparent to itself. As we have seen, Rāzī himself had argued that the soul’s substantiality is not obvious to the soul merely from its awareness of itself.33 Earlier on, Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī had pointed out that, the soul’s constant awareness of itself notwithstanding, some of its acts in the body, such as digestion and growth, are very rarely, if ever, given to it as its own.34 In the light of such counterexamples, it is only natural to ask why the self’s inherence in the body could not be both constitutive or concomitant and 29 30

31 32 33 34

See Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 255–256 Rahman; Ishārāt, namat. 3, 120. Cf. Asfār IV.2.2, VIII.46–47 (in an argument for the incorporeality of the animal soul); IV.6.1, VIII.347–348 (with an interesting remark against the Aristotelian thesis that the faculty of sense perceives its own act of perceiving); and IV.6.1, VIII.353–355 (in a variation of the argument from the unity of experience). For the argument, which S·adrā seems uncharacteristically critical of, see Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.338–340. Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.343. See Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II.2.2.1, II.246–247, as discussed in Chapter 5.2, 116–118. Baghdādī, Mu‘tabar: al-‘ilm al-t.abī‘ī VI.5, II.319–320.

Four Avicennian arguments


opaque to the self. The choice, decisive for the argument, between those opaque aspects of the self that are constitutive to it and those that are not seems all but arbitrary. T.ūsī’s answer in Avicenna’s defence is based on a distinction between two types of constituents of experience: The attributes and concomitants are divided into what is necessary for the soul due to itself (li dhātihā), such as its apprehending itself (kawnihā mudrikatan li dhātihā), and what is necessary for it after comparing it with things that are different from it, such as its being separate from matter and not existing in a subject. The soul apprehends the first sort constantly, just as it apprehends itself constantly (kānat mudrikatan li dhātihā dā’iman), but it does not apprehend the second sort except in the state of comparing, because the condition is lacking in states other than that.35

T.ūsi’s point is clear: in order to be aware of its relation to and separation from the body, the soul has to compare and relate itself explicitly to the body by means of considerations such as the present argument. This comparison requires information acquired through the operation of the senses and is therefore not essential, innate or constitutive to the soul, unlike the soul’s awareness of itself. S·adrā’s assessment of the debate is admirably clear in its density. If we hold, as he does, that the self’s perceptions (apprehension in T.ūsī’s second class) are acts of the self that it is aware of in and due to itself, we must reject T.ūsī’s distinction as based on inadequate evidence.36 Again, S·adrā’s basic insight will become clearer when we chart the consequences of his theory of cognitive unity for his conception of human selfhood. Suffice it now to say that his analysis of this debate generated by the argument from the constancy of self-awareness shows that S·adrā latches on to a well-established discussion on self-awareness without pointing out any pressing need to reject the underlying phenomenon. That he understood this phenomenon in exactly the same sense as his aforediscussed predecessors becomes clear from his treatment of the two remaining types of argument.

35 36

Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.343–344. Cf. T.ūsī, Sharh. al-Ishārāt II.346–348. Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.344. Let it be added that S·adrā’s refusal of T.ūsī’s line of defence does not entail that he takes Rāzī’s criticism to be conclusive. If one differentiates categorically between the material and mental existence of one and the same entity, as S·adrā does, the opaque aspects of a human being can be exhaustively relegated to material existence so that they no longer pose a problem for the full transparency of every act of mental existence. As a material form, the human soul’s existence does consist in unaware acts in the body, but that is simply because material existence is below the level of the mental. Cf. Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.77–79.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness Argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness

This Avicennian argument figures in two different contexts in the Asfār. S·adrā reproduces the intuition underlying the original in a chapter dedicated to showing that an intellect’s act of self-intellection is identical with the intellect itself, and therefore temporally coterminous with it. The argument is preceded by a closely related statement according to which all human apprehension and action take place in the first person: When a human is engaged in an apprehensive or a motive act, his purpose is not absolute apprehension or movement but an individual apprehension which originates in him and occurs to him, and the same is to be said of movement. When someone escapes from an enemy or heat or cold, his escape is not from an absolute enemy but from his individual enemy, nor is it from absolute heat but from an individual heat which has hurt him and happened to his self (dhātihi), and knowledge of the occurrence of the heat or the cold to him entails knowledge of him. Similarly, someone who intends to act in some manner or to acquire something desired does not intend that the act occurs in an absolute sense but that it occurs with respect to him, nor to satisfy an absolute desire but a desire particular to him, and all this is derived from his knowledge of himself (dhātihi). It is thus evidently shown that a human’s knowledge of his soul and his self (bi nafsihi wa dhātihi) is the first and oldest knowledge, it is always present and he is never without it.37

The argument relies on commonplace examples of motivated action: no disinterested perception of a potentially painful quality will cause any reaction in us, but only a quality that we actually perceive as painful and therefore concerning ourselves will. By the same token, we will be driven to neither fight nor flee at the sight of an armed person unless we perceive him to be hostile towards ourselves. Thus, the first-order perceptions that prompt reactions in us must entail some sort of self-acquaintance, they have to be uniquely our own. Now, if such self-acquaintance is a necessary feature of such commonplace acts and related apprehensions, S·adrā argues, we have no reason to presume that they are not there even in apprehensions that do not demand immediate reactions of us. In this precise sense, therefore, each human being, as an intellectual entity, is constantly aware of herself. Thus, S·adrā’s argument hinges on the fact that all our experience and action take place in the first person, in much the same way as Avicenna’s argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness. It is therefore


Asfār I.10.2.4, III.505.

Four Avicennian arguments


not surprising that he supports his case with what amounts to an uncredited quote: No one can say: my knowledge of myself (bi nafsī) is due to a medium which is my act, I am informed of myself by my act (ustudilla bi fi‘lī ‘alā dhātī). That is because I can neither be informed of myself (dhātī) by an absolute act nor be informed by an act which originates from myself to myself (s.adara min nafsī ‘alā nafsī). If I am informed by an absolute act, an absolute act only requires an absolute agent, and only an absolute agent can be established by means of it, not an agent that would be me. If I am informed of myself (‘alay) by my act, I can only know my act after knowing myself (nafsī). Thus, if I can only know myself (nafsī) after knowing myself (nafsī), a circle results, and it is false. This therefore indicates that a human being’s knowledge of himself (bi nafsihi) is not by means of his act.38

This version of the familiar argument is clearly derived from the Ishārāt and is used to make exactly the same Avicennian point.39 If my self-awareness is supposed to be due and subsequent to my reflective consideration of my own act, we will not be left with anything by means of which the first-order act can be rendered an act that belongs uniquely to me. Thus, the state has to be somehow earmarked as mine to begin with, and as the earlier argument spelled out, this can be achieved because of the inherent firstpersonality of the act, its being my act. Another occurrence of the same argument can be identified in the chapter that has already yielded us the flying animal. The purpose is, again, to argue for the immateriality of the animal – and, a fortiori, the human – soul. One of S·adrā’s demonstrations is a syllogism relying on a premise that the animal is constantly aware of itself, not by means of an acquired object of knowledge. The argument against reflection-based models of self-awareness is relied on as support for that premise. Were knowledge of the soul’s existence acquired, it would be either by means of sense-perception, which is false . . . or by means of thought, and thus no doubt from evidence (dalīl), the evidence being either a cause of the soul or its effect. The first is false, because the cause of souls is something too elevated to be encompassed by the animal’s knowledge; furthermore, most people know themselves (anfusahum) even though the cause of their souls (anfusihim) does not occur to their mind. The second is also false, because either the medium in the evidence is an absolute act or [the animal’s] act related to it; thus, if it considers an absolute act, consequently it asserts an absolute agent, not an agent that is it; and if it considers a related act, knowledge of an act related to an individual depends on knowledge of [the individual], so that if knowledge of it 38

Asfār I.10.2.4, III.505.


Cf. Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 120; and see Chapter 4.1, 72–75.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness were acquired from knowledge of an act related to it, a circle would result. Thus, it is established that the animal’s knowledge of itself (bi nafsihi) is not derived from sense-perception or evidence.40

In all its density, the argument is a remarkably faithful rendering of the Avicennian original. However, the fact that it is embedded in a context dealing with the animal soul has consequences that may seem problematic at first sight. In Avicenna the argument is designed to refute a thesis that arises from a commonplace phenomenon of human psychology: we are capable of reflecting upon ourselves, and since it is in an explicit reflective stance that we first come to pay attention to ourselves, it may seem natural to adopt reflection as the primary sense in which we choose to speak of selfawareness. The capacity of reflection, however, is an exclusive prerequisite of intellectual subjects and thereby something that non-human animals are bereft of. Since nothing indicates S·adrā’s willingness to give up this traditional tenet,41 it seems natural to read this version of the argument against the reflection model of self-awareness as an argument per impossibile. But unlike the flying animal, this re-appropriation of a discussion on human beings in the animal case is not fatal to the argument’s plausibility. A counterfactual argument can be perfectly valid – provided that the thesis it is intended to support can be corroborated by other means. And S·adrā clearly does not base his claim of the immateriality of the animal soul on the argument against reflection, which instead serves the significantly more modest purpose of rejecting the suggestion that animal self-awareness is due to acquired knowledge. There is also a less obviously Avicennian variation of the argument, in the course of which S·adrā makes an interesting qualification. This version is embedded in an extended case for the immediacy of self-awareness. Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that self-awareness is due to a special object of awareness, a cognitive form which refers to one’s self and the awareness of which will thereby mediately amount to self-awareness. In such a case, this form will either have to be identical to one’s self or in some respect different from it. If it is identical to one’s self, then a form (of the self as object of awareness) will occur to itself (the same self as the subject of awareness). The problem is, given that the self-aware human being is immaterial, we have no means of distinguishing between the two identical forms, and so the duality required in the presupposition can no longer be maintained. If, on the other hand, the form is somehow different from the 40 41

Asfār IV.2.2, VIII.46–47; emphasis added. That animal self-awareness is not intellectual is explicitly stated in Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.326–328.

Four Avicennian arguments


self it represents, awareness of the form is not a case of self-awareness sensu stricto. S·adrā is elliptic about why exactly this is the case, but it seems natural to read his statement as a tacit reference to the argument against reflectionbased models of self-awareness: if the form is simply different from me, there is no non-arbitrary way to recognize it as myself. In any case, when all possibilities of an alleged medium of self-awareness have been ruled out, so the argument runs, the self must simply occur to itself. Since this cannot be a question of acquisition, self-awareness has to be constant.42 In light of what we have learned from S·adrā’s predecessors, one might expect the discussion to be settled at this point. However, S·adrā finds the argument problematic because it threatens to rule out the possibility of reflective self-awareness, which he says ‘many of us’ are perfectly familiar with. This is because when I take a prior mental state or act of mine into explicit consideration in a higher-order act of reflection, a form that is identical to me will have to occur to me. Were it not for this identity, I would not be able to recognize myself in the object of reflection; were it not for the distinction between the first- and second-order states, no reflective relation could be established. Thus, S·adrā thinks that a rephrasing of the argument is in order.43 According to S·adrā, the real problem behind the claim that a specific form acts as a medium for self-awareness is that any form occurring to a subject that is aware of it is an accident of that subject. But if the self is a substance and the object of knowledge an accident, I should be aware of myself as an accident of myself. This is evidently not the case. On the contrary, if I choose to apply the Aristotelian system of categories to myself, I will inevitably classify myself under ‘substance’. Thus, self-awareness has to be due to an immediate presence of the self to itself, just as Avicenna cogently, if in somewhat inaccurate terms, had argued.44 However, it is 42

43 44

This argument, with slight variations, figures in two contexts in the Asfār: first in a discussion concerning the self-intellection of all intellects (Asfār I.10.2.4, III.501), and later on in the psychological section of the book in a chapter designed to show that the rational soul is incorporeal (Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.320–326). In the latter, S·adrā informs us that he is drawing from Avicenna’s Mubāh.athāt. While certain specific points in the discussion can be located in that compilation of Avicennian correspondence (cf. Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt 55–58, 134–135 Badawī (VI.446, 121; and VI.493, 172–173 Bīdārfar) with Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.320–324; Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt 426, 222–223 Badawī (VI.892, 318 Bīdārfar) with Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.324–325; the discussion on animal self-awareness in Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt 357–358, 199 Badawī (VI.502–505, 175–176 Bīdārfar) and 374–375, 209 Badawī (V.289–293, 120 Bīdārfar) seems to be vaguely related to the considerably more developed views in Asfār IV.6.1, VIII.326–328), I have not been able to find precedents for all steps in the series of questions S·adrā discusses. Asfār I.10.2.4, III.501. This follow-up is not included in the psychological context. Asfār I.10.2.4, III.501. This is reminiscent of Avicenna’s response to his interlocutors as reported in Asfār IV.6.1, VIII, 320–321; cf. Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt 56, 135 Badawī; VI.446, 121 Bīdārfar.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

important to notice that S·adrā clearly thinks that his manner of phrasing the point is better equipped to make sense of commonplace acts of reflection. When I reflect upon myself, I realize that my act of reflection is accidental and that its object is just as fortuitous as any other object of my awareness. Thus, the form that is me as an object of reflection does occur to me accidentally. Yet it is equally important to point out that this qualification is inconsequential for S·adrā’s account of the primitive self-awareness at its basis, an account which remains thoroughly Avicennian. His only qualm is that we have to allow for the possibility that a cognitive subject is presented with an object she apprehends as distinct from yet identical to herself. The identity between the subject and the object is grounded in first-order primitive self-awareness, the subject of which recognizes herself in reflection precisely because she was already there in the object of reflection, whereas the distinction is due to the hierarchical relation between the subjectsubstance and the object-accident. The Avicennian argument against the reflection model of self-awareness hinges on an implicit distinction between the types of awareness respective to a subject and an object. In the previous chapter we saw Suhrawardī explicate this distinction by means of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘it’. S·adrā revisits this method in a loaded chapter that gathers together the premises required in an investigation into God’s knowledge. Having established a distinction between the epistemological concept of knowledge as a mental form that refers to an external object and the psychological concept of knowledge as simply a feature of the world, he makes the following observation on selfawareness: We apprehend ourselves (dhawātanā) through our very form through which we are we, not through a form additional to it. Thus, every human being apprehends himself (dhātahu) in a manner which prevents sharing. If this apprehension were through a form which occurs in our soul, [the form] would be universal, and even if it were a collection of universals the whole of which is individuated by a single self (dhāt), then nevertheless its very conception would not rule out the possibility of being true of many. Besides, we refer to every universal concept and mental form – even if it were something which subsists through our self (dhātinā) – by ‘it’ whereas our self (dhātinā) we refer to by ‘I’, and our knowledge of our self is identical to the existence of our self and our individual itness (‘ilmunā bi dhātinā ‘aynu wujūdi dhātinā wa huwīyatinā al-shakhs.īya).45


Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.149.

Four Avicennian arguments


Self-awareness is a unique cognitive phenomenon because in it the epistemological and the psychological concept of knowledge coincide: we know ourselves simply through our existence, or, in the Avicennian terms S·adrā borrows here, our knowledge of ourselves is our very existence. But the way in which S·adrā argues towards this statement is a mixture of two Suhrawardian ideas. As we recall,46 Suhrawardī argued against the impression theory of knowledge by saying that whatever is impressed in an immaterial subject, such as the human soul, is universal, because immateriality entails intellectuality, and intellects have universals as objects. S·adrā connects this to the statement that objects always appear in the mode of an it, whereas appearing as an I is exclusive to our respective selves, unshareable by and inaccessible to any other subject.47 The interesting feature in this combination of the two Suhrawardian insights is that S·adrā seems to deny his predecessor’s claim according to which the first-personal indexical is a universal in its own right.48 This impression is corroborated later on in the same context: ‘whatever is composed of universal concepts can only be referred to by means of “it”, not by means of “I”’.49 Suhrawardī spoke of the ‘I’ as a universal concept presumably because it refers in one and the same sense to primitive first-personality in the case of each of its multiple utterers. When Zayd, ‘Umar and Khālid say ‘I’, each indicates his being a first-personal subject of experience; although the individual referent of the pronoun is given exclusively to the subject uttering it, everyone refers to individual instantiations of the same I-ness. S·adrā, however, quite probably owing to the needs of his context, emphasizes the indexicality of the pronoun instead of the alleged meaning that is preserved from one context to another. Whenever someone utters the expression ‘I’, she must refer to her unshareable and exclusive awareness of herself, and in this sense the indexical cannot be used of any object. Moreover, strictly speaking S·adrā does not even say that the first-personal indexical does not function as a universal in the sense expounded by Suhrawardī; all he states is that whatever is explicitly given in universal terms is by necessity given as an object and thereby distinct from the I or the self.50 46 47

48 49 50

Cf. Chapter 6.1, 128–130. This familiar distinction is not obscured by the fact that S·adrā uses the technical term ‘itness’ (huwīya) at the end of the passage. In the sense intended here, ‘itness’ does not denote the opposite of I-ness but rather refers to the individuality of any existing thing, whether the thing is a subject (‘I’) or an object (‘it’). Cf. Goichon 1991. Cf. Suhrawardī, Talwīh.āt III.5.15, 282–283 Habībī; 115–116 Corbin; and see Chapter 5.2, 119–121; and Chapter 6.1, 128–129. Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.149; cf. III.1.3.1, VI.150. Cf. Asfār IV.2.3, VIII.50–51, where S·adrā speaks of the concept ‘I’.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

Our brief consideration of S·adrā’s use of the argument against the reflection model of self-awareness shows, again, that he speaks of selfawareness in the same sense as his predecessors. This is not obscured either by his somewhat less rigorous terminology or by the qualifications he makes for the argument. If anything, the qualifications help to underline the fact that by the seventeenth century this particular way of delimiting the phenomenon had undergone considerable refinement. Argument from unity of experience The traditional argument from the unity of experience surfaces in a condensed form quite frequently in the psychological part of the Asfār. I will consider only two somewhat more extended treatments of it; the first comes from a chapter designed to demonstrate the soul’s unity despite its seemingly distinct faculties, while the second is embedded in an eschatological refutation of transmigration. I will conclude by considering a qualification S·adrā is driven to make in a consideration of Abū al-Barakāt’s and Rāzī’s counterexample of unconscious vegetative acts such as digestion. S·adrā’s discussion of the Avicennian theory of the internal senses in the fifth section of the psychology of the Asfār culminates in three demonstrations for the soul’s unity, notwithstanding the faculty psychological analysis of its functions. Of these demonstrations – from the object known, the knowing subject and knowledge itself, respectively – the second is a variation of the argument from unity. You do not doubt that you see things, hear sounds and apprehend intelligibles, nor do you doubt that you are numerically one. If that which apprehends intelligibles were different from that which apprehends sensibles, then the substance of your self (jawharu dhātika), which is strictly speaking (‘inda al-tah.qīq) you, would not perceive the two together. If it does apprehend both, then that which apprehends them is one self (dhātan), and that is what was sought for, otherwise you would be two selves (dhātayn) instead of one self (dhātan). The same is to be said about desire and anger, for you do not doubt that you desire intercourse or something else, and that you are angry at your adversary.51

There is little extraordinary about this version of the argument. S·adrā relies on the familiar phenomenon of distinct objects being given to a subject that one will constantly identify with regardless of the fluctuation in the objective content the subject is presented with. That subject, the persistent first51

Asfār IV.5.4, VIII.265.

Four Avicennian arguments


personal perspective to that content, is what the interlocutor will intuitively recognize as herself. However, slightly later on, when dealing with a counterargument according to which the real subject of each apprehension is the respective faculty or organ, S·adrā is led to make an interesting specification regarding the proper realm of the experiential unity that the argument relies on. If you say: ‘I do not apprehend after the service’,52 then you do not see, you do not hear, nor do you find in yourself (min nafsika) your pain, your pleasure, your hunger or your thirst, but you know that the eye, which is your instrument and the seeing faculty, has apprehended and seen something, and this knowledge is different from the reality of seeing and vision. Thus, knowledge that the eye sees, the ear hears, the foot walks and the hand strikes is not seeing, hearing, walking or striking, just as knowledge that another is hungry, in pain or joyful is not intuition (wijdānan) of hunger, pain or joy. But even those in the very beginning of their understanding know that they hear, see, suffer pain, rejoice, strike and walk, and if this knowledge can be denied, then all that is perceived and beheld can be denied. It is therefore known that the faculty of our hearing, seeing, striking and walking is through the soul, and through it we hear, through it we see, through it we strike and through it we walk. By means of this it is established that the substance of your soul (jawhara nafsika) – through which you are you – hears, sees, suffers pain, rejoices, understands, comprehends, strikes and walks, even if in each species of these acts it needs a proper natural instrument. There is no dispute about that as long as we remain in the world of nature, but if the soul casts away the body and becomes independent in existence, these acts emerge from it without instruments.53

Knowledge of the relevant corporeal processes which the Peripatetic philosophers took to cause perception or amount to action, that is, knowledge ‘that the eye sees, the ear hears, the foot walks and the hand strikes’, is not awareness of actually perceiving or acting. Yet our awareness of our seeing, hearing, walking and striking is one of the first facts we recognize as intuitively evident, and therefore the foundation upon which all our further knowledge must lie. This is of course an oblique subscription to the Avicennian claim of the primitivity of self-awareness, but here in the context of the argument from unity it serves to distinguish the corporeal 52


‘Service’ (al-ta’diya) here refers to the operation of the instrument of the soul’s act, in this case of apprehension. Earlier on S·adrā has stated that even if we allow, for argument’s sake, that the instrument apprehends its objects, the apprehension of the soul or the self still remains distinct from it, and it is the latter that the argument from unity hinges upon. Here he proceeds to tackle the stronger claim that there is no subsequent apprehension of the single self at all. Asfār IV.5.4, VIII.266–267.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

processes allegedly underpinning our experiences from those experiences considered as such. The argument from unity derives its force from the realm of the latter, and the self-awareness whose recognition it hinges upon is precisely the sort of commonplace phenomenal fact that Avicenna had introduced. S·adrā’s specification intensifies Avicenna’s argument in a fashion that rings peculiarly modern in its explicit distinction between thirdpersonally describable objective things and events, such as corporeal processes, and first-personally experienced qualitative experiences. By the same token, S·adrā takes his predecessor’s substance dualism a step further: for him, mental existence, or the realm of self-aware experience, is ultimately self-subsistent and entirely independent of its erstwhile corporeal basis. The body is an instrument which the soul, having reached the level of mental existence, can leave behind, not merely in intellection but equally in experiences of the perceptual mode.54 In the last, eschatological part of the Asfār, S·adrā devotes an entire section of considerable length to a refutation of transmigration, with one of the chapters building upon the fact that ‘every human individual has a single self (dhātan) that is his soul’,55 that is, on the argument from unity. This fact is established at the very beginning of the section as follows: Each one of us knows intuitively (bi al-wijdān), before resorting to demonstration, that his self (dhātahu) and reality is one thing, not many things. Thereby he knows that he understands, apprehends, senses, desires, is angry, prefers, moves, is at rest and is characterized by a combination of attributes and names, some of which are of the class of the intellect and its states, some of the class of sense-perception and imagination and their states, and some of the class of the body and its accidents and passions. Although this is something intuitive, most people cannot know it with respect to the art of knowledge but deny this unity when they embark on inquiry and scrutiny, except the one whom God assists by a light from Him. How will one who is incapable of the unity of his self (nafsihi) have strength for the unity of his Lord? What has reached us from the ancients regarding this question is that when they distributed types of acts to types of faculties and related each one of them to a different faculty, they needed to show that in all of them there is something like root and origin and that the rest of the faculties are like its consequences and branches.56

The argument itself is perfectly familiar, but the methodological point S·adrā raises is worth spelling out. As the end of the passage clearly indicates, he diagnoses the problem of unity as due to the faculty psychological 54 55

For corroborative passages, see Asfār IV.3.8, VIII.150–151; IV.11.1, IX.270; and IV.11.13, IX.372. Asfār IV.8.5, IX.72. 56 Asfār IV.8.5, IX.72–73.

Four Avicennian arguments


postulation of distinct faculties as theoretical counterparts of distinguishable acts. Thus, despite the vague reference to ‘the ancients’, S·adrā seems to have Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7 on his desk here.57 Particularly interesting from this point of view is S·adrā’s reservation about Avicenna’s claim that the identity between the soul, that is, the entity the functions of which are studied in psychology, and the self one is aware of is self-evident. Notwithstanding the fact that every human being knows intuitively and indubitably from her own experience that as a subject she persists from one mode of apprehension or action to another, psychological inferences of the soul’s substantiality on this basis may not be quite as straightforward as Avicenna claimed. As we have seen, this suspicion had already been raised by Abū al-Barakāt who was then followed by Rāzī and Suhrawardī.58 But S·adrā’s stance is somewhat different. He does not deny the validity of the move as such, but points out that not everyone is capable of applying intuitive evidence in theoretical argumentation in the proper manner. For this reason alone, the move is more involved than Avicenna thought. Moreover, the theory of really distinct psychological faculties can be set in two alternative relations to the soul’s unity, and the one that Avicenna opted for will make the soul’s unity ultimately unattainable. This is because he set out by analysing experience into atomary content units, postulating on that basis a corresponding distinction in reality between faculties responsible for each of them, and only subsequently attempted to bind the discrete units back into a unified whole that corresponds to our experience. According to S·adrā, we should instead start from the fundamental unity of the soul and proceed to explain the distinction between faculties and the respective organs as a step subsequent to that unity. This method of procedure has a parallel in theology: only by taking our cue from God’s absolute unity can we expect to make sense of His manifold attributes, whereas the inverse order of explanation that begins with attributes that are supposed really to exist as such will never attain an adequate conception of His unity. The soul’s unity signalled by the self’s unity has to be the foundation and the starting point of psychology. We must anchor our psychology to this fundamental unity of the soul and conceive of the distinction between faculties as subsequent to it, a fact that is exclusively due to the soul’s body the deficiency of which enables it to reproduce the mental unity of 57


Cf. Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 252–257 Rahman; and see Chapter 4.1, 66–71. The connection to this chapter of the Shifā’ is also belied by formulations such as ‘knows that he understands . . . and is characterized by a combination of attributes and names’, as well as the explicit discussion of the validity of psychological inferences on the basis of this aspect of self-awareness. See Chapter 5.2.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

experience only through a structural unity of spatially distinct organs.59 Yet despite this difference from Avicenna, it is clear that S·adrā has no objections to his description and application of self-awareness in the argument from unity. He merely believes that the phenomenon can function in the explanatory role devised for it only if the faculty psychological approach is assigned to its proper realm of relevance. To conclude this discussion of S·adrā’s application of the argument from unity, let us have a brief look at his treatment of a related counterargument which, though originally presented by Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, he culls from Rāzī’s al-Mabāh.ith al-mashriqīya.60 The argument can be summarized as follows. If the soul’s status as the single agent of all acts in the animated body is evidenced by our awareness of ourselves as single subjects and agents behind our experience and action, then given that Avicenna holds the same soul to be equally responsible for vegetative acts such as growth and digestion, should we not be equally aware of ourselves as agents of such acts as well? But that is evidently not the case; on the contrary, for the most part those acts remain below the threshold of any sort of awareness. Thus, such subconscious animate processes as digestion or growth threaten to invalidate the crucial connection between the experience of self and the theory of soul.61 S·adrā tackles this challenge by means of three metaphysical principles of his own. The first concerns what he calls active knowledge (‘ilm fi‘lī): knowledge is active if it causes an effect, whether or not it entails knowledge of that effect.62 This rather dense principle expresses the manner in which immaterial things, such as the human self, exist and act as causes: their existence is self-cognition, and in cognizing themselves they bring about effects in the material world. The important point is that knowledge of the effect is not necessary either for the self-cognition or for the causal power of the immaterial things. The second principle states that knowledge (‘ilm) in the most general sense is a perfection proper to the mental level of existence and thereby something that material existence is by definition devoid of.63 Because the human soul exists both materially and mentally, it can have characteristics that are proper for one mode of existence but not for the other. In this sense acts such as vegetation and growth on the one hand, and self-awareness on the other, fall on opposite sides of the fence. Finally, 59 60 61 63

Asfār IV.8.5, IX.76–77, 80. For the original, cf. Baghdādī, Mu‘tabar: al-‘ilm al-t.abī‘ī VI.5, II.319–320. S·adrā’s source is Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.257. For S·adrā’s paraphrase of the argument, see Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.77. 62 Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.77–78. Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.78.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


according to S·adrā’s third principle, knowledge and its object can be asymmetrical in terms of their respective levels of existence. The subconscious animate processes exist on the lowest level of material existence, and since their existence is therefore knowledge neither in nor of itself, they can only be known when a form represents them for a subject that is capable of knowledge.64 These principles allow S·adrā to state that the selves we are aware of are the true agents of even subconscious animate processes, even though they are not aware of their agency in these cases in the same manner as they are aware of themselves or such acts of theirs as intellection, perception or deliberate action. The self’s awareness of itself and its innate desire for the perfection proper to it causes the subconscious acts. In this sense the self, by being aware of itself, is aware of the cause of these acts just as it is aware of the cause of its conscious acts. The fact that it is not aware of itself as the agent of those acts is due not to any opacity in the self, but rather to the weak degree of existence those thoroughly corporeal acts are inherently confined to – indeed, as far as the mode of existence proper to cognitive phenomena is concerned, they border on non-existence. They are, as it were, inconsequential material concomitants of the self’s existence, not unlike reflections of the Sun’s light, which although caused and fully dependent on their origin, are incapable of penetrating to the level of its intensity. S·adrā’s answer to the evidence that was designed to counter the argument from unity shows that he approaches the phenomenon of self-awareness in a new conceptual framework. This was also signalled in some of the qualifications we have seen him make to otherwise familiar arguments hinging upon the phenomenon. But they also show that he latches on to a tradition of sustained discussion that stays within the framework established by Avicenna’s original definition of self-awareness. As I believe the wealth of shared material shows, all the additions and qualifications notwithstanding, the concept of self-awareness with which S·adrā operates amounts to the same very narrow concept of first-personality that we have encountered in Avicenna and Suhrawardī.

7.2 The complicated evidence of self-awareness The familiarity of S·adrā’s discussion of self-awareness goes beyond a mere description of the phenomenon, for he casts self-awareness in a theoretical 64

Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.78–79.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

role that resembles those we have considered in both Avicenna and Suhrawardī. This debt is signalled by the following passage: We know through our intuition (bi wijdāninā) that when we apprehend our self (dhātinā) we may be unaware of all universal concepts and signs, not to mention the concept of substance or rational, or other [concepts]. Whatever we know of these things, we do not refer to it as ‘I’, and from this it is known that all is absent from us except our simple itness, and no doubt this simple itness is nothing but existence. Whatever is other than it no doubt falls under one of the categories and is composed of universal things. Existence is not like that, for as has repeatedly come up, it does not enter under a universal meaning, even if many of those meanings are true of it. Herefrom emerges the remark by one of them to the people – when they assert the soul’s separation by [the fact] that we are unaware of the body and other corpora as well as their accidents while not unaware of our self (dhātinā), and so our self (dhātunā) is a separate substance, no body or any of their accidents – where he says in opposition that we often apprehend our self (dhātanā) without the meaning of separate substance having occurred to our mind at all, how then can our self (dhātunā) be identical to a separate substance?65

The central claim that self-awareness is nothing but existence already comes close to Suhrawardī’s denial of substantiality behind the phenomenon,66 and S·adrā pays his dues in the anonymous reference to the shaykh al-ishrāq in the second paragraph. Even if we were forced to classify ourselves under the category ‘substance’ in a self-reflective act, we must not infer that substantiality is a real, observer-independent feature of our self-awareness. However, S·adrā applies the phenomenon with an Avicennian twist, for he does seem willing to allow for a mode of existence that is not equivalent to self-awareness. Rather, self-awareness is first and foremost a characteristic of mental existence in much the same way as Avicenna conceived it as exclusive to intellectual, and therefore immaterial, entities. But the S·adrian concept of mental existence is articulated in a system that renders it fundamentally different from Avicenna’s concept of immaterial human existence, which cannot but have important consequences for his understanding of self-awareness. In order to get a grasp of this aspect of S·adrā’s thought, we have to start from one of his most famous – or notorious – ideas, the theory of change in the category of substance. Islamic philosophers seem to have almost univocally subscribed to Aristotle’s thesis according to which motion or change takes place only in 65

Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.150; emphases added.


Cf. Chapter 5.2, 118–123.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


categories other than substance.67 Avicenna, for instance, accepts motion with respect to quality (alteration), quantity (augmentation and diminution, densification and rarification), place (locomotion) and position (for instance, the motion of the celestial spheres).68 All these types of motion, like their respective categories, take place in or by means of something else, namely a substance that is their subject. Substances themselves, on the other hand, of course come and cease to be, but this is not a change properly speaking. It is not a temporal process with an intermediate state of perfection which could be correctly called motion, but an instantaneous, durationless replacement of a form by another in a material substrate. Thus, the generation of a substance is an instantaneous move from pure potentiality (with regard to the emerging form) to full actuality (of the same form),69 and since there is nothing actual in relation to which we could mark these two moments as phases in a continuum, the move does not count as a motion properly speaking. S·adrā departs from the mainstream view by constantly resorting to his postulation of substantial change (h.araka jawharīya). This idea diametrically contradicts the traditional claim: change is possible, and even primarily takes place, in the category of substance. Yet despite this departure from the tradition, S·adrā’s claim is an expression of the fundamentally Aristotelian tenet that all natural processes are teleological, or ultimately based on teleological processes, innately directed towards a specific goal. Every natural thing, having come to exist, by its very nature strives to exist well, pursuing a manner of perfection proper to it. But whereas this was traditionally conceived as change within the set of the concomitant accidents, as distinguished from completely fortuitous accidents, of the substance with the substance itself remaining static, S·adrā understands it as a process within the very category of substance, a process that concerns the substance as a whole down to its very core. The most impressive example of substantial change is provided by the human development from an exclusively material embryo to a perceiving infant, and ultimately to an adult with a more or less perfectly developed intellect. In making sense of this development, S·adrā subscribes to the Avicennian idea according to which individual human souls first come to 67

68 69

Cf. Ar. Phys. V.2, 225b10–12; and Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī II.3.1–6, 136–141. Avicenna does mention, as a conceptual possibility, the ‘extreme’ view according to which there is motion in substance, but in the end this merely amounts to calling generation and corruption a kind of motion, that is, to an improper use of the term (Shifā’: al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī II.2.1, 128). Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī II.3.7–20, 141–151. Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī II.3.2, 136–137.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

be because of their connection to a material body. Of these two constituents of early human existence, the soul is of course the ontologically higher one – that which gives the human being a stable identity in the face of the continual transformation of its material basis70 – but its superiority notwithstanding, the soul still owes its individual genesis to the body it governs. All of the foregoing is familiar to any student of Avicenna’s psychology, but, unlike his predecessor, S·adrā thinks that in this early stage of its existence the soul is a material form pure and simple, not at all different from the forms of minerals or plants in this respect.71 The difference is that the souls of neither human nor non-human animals are not restricted to exist as material forms. Rather, it is part and parcel of the substantial change proper to them that they develop in perfection until they reach the level of mental existence (wujūd dhihnī), really distinct and independent from material existence. This happens when the soul becomes capable of perceptual, and subsequently imaginative and intellectual, apprehension, and it is only at the acquisition of this level of existence that self-awareness is introduced. Thus, at the beginning of its existence as a material form, the human soul is not aware of itself. This is because self-awareness amounts to the presence of the self-aware entity to itself. Now, the only presence a material entity can have to anything, whether to itself or another, is the spatial relation of proximity or contiguity. But neither proximity nor contiguity allows a material entity to have a holistic relation to itself; we can of course imagine a material thing folding upon itself like a piece of cloth, but it is obvious that such a folding will be neither complete (for no part of the cloth will be in contact with every other part) nor properly described as a relation of the entity to itself (only a contact between its parts). These limitations, inherent to spatiality, preclude any self-relation, let alone presence to self, on the material level of existence. Moreover, S·adrā states that strictly speaking there is no presence of any material thing to any other material thing, for spatial juxtaposition does not entail presence unless one or both of the juxtaposed things apprehends the juxtaposition.72 The situation is completely different in the case of immaterial, or mental, existence: Whatever exists incorporeally occurs to itself (h.ās.ilun li dhātihi), for its self (dhātahu) is not veiled from itself (dhātihi). Thus, it understands itself (dhātihi), for knowledge is the same as existence provided that there is no veiling. But the only veil there really is is non-existence, and likewise, non70 72

Asfār IV.7.1, VIII.380–384. Asfār I.10.2.1, III.483.


Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.385; cf. IV.7.4, VIII.440.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


existence of the veil comes back to a confirmation and intensification of existence until there is no weakness borne by privation, which is a kind of non-existence.73

This passage reads quite naturally as an expression of the traditional doctrine according to which immateriality entails intellectuality, and intellectuality in turn amounts to self-intellection. But I would argue that S·adrā’s exclusive regard to intellection here is primarily due to the context, which is devoted to a discussion of intellection. As we have already seen in such cases as the flying animal, S·adrā transformed the traditional idea to hold true of all apprehension: whatever apprehends exists mentally, and since mental existence is immaterial, the subject apprehending any object whatsoever will thereby apprehend herself. So far so good: S·adrā departs from Avicenna by taking the material constituent of human existence to be essential to it in the beginning, but he subscribes to the latter’s dualism when it comes to the mental existence of the same human being. This similarity naturally gives rise to two questions. First, does S·adrā identify mental existence with self-awareness in the manner of Avicenna? And if he does, is this in order to deal with the problem of the individuation of immaterial existence that we found looming in Avicenna? The question of individuation does indeed come up in the psychological section of the Asfār in an argument for the thesis that the individual human soul is generated in time. The discussion is particularly interesting because it incorporates, by way of refutation, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s critical remarks on Avicenna. In al-Mabāh.ith al-mashriqīya fī ‘ilm al-ilāhīyāt wa al-t.abī‘īyāt, Rāzī presents six arguments against Avicenna’s demonstration of the individual human soul’s generation in time.74 As we have seen, Avicenna’s demonstration was based on the Peripatetic idea that distinctions between generated individual entities are always due to matter, and so, in order to become instantiated in multiple distinct persons, the human essence common to them all must be related to a corresponding number of bodies.75 In 73



Asfār I.10.2.1, III.483. Cf. I.10.2.1, III.484–485, where the second argument for the self-awareness of all immaterial entities is based on essentially the same idea. This argument dwells at some length upon the rejection of the claim that presence to self entails a real relation. Instead, S·adrā states that the relation is merely apparent and due to our manner of speech; in reality the self as that which is present and the self as that to which it is present are one and the same thing. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.401–403. S·adrā quotes the arguments at length in Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.389–391, but he seems to attribute them to Rāzī’s Mulakhkhas. fī al-h.ikma. Unfortunately, this work has not been edited, and I have not been able to find the arguments in the sole manuscript available to me (Berlin Staatsbibliothek Or. Oct. 623). Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.3, 223–227 Rahman; see Chapter 3.1.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

his sixth and final argument Rāzī brings forth the case of souls that have been actualized as individuals by being generated through relations to their respective bodies but that, having passed away in infancy, have failed to acquire any further distinguishing characteristics. According to Avicenna, even such souls will have some kind of individual existence, albeit a very ‘thin’ one, after the demise of their bodies.76 But, Rāzī counters, this amounts to saying that they subsist as mere material intellects, with no accidents to account for their individuality. In other words, they are stated to be individuated by themselves (lā yakūna fīhā shay’un min al-‘awāridi illā mujarrada dhātihi). Yet if this suffices for individual existence in the˙afterlife, why cannot souls be individuated by themselves before their connection to bodies?77 At first glance, Rāzī’s paraphrase seems rather uncharitable to Avicenna’s account of body-induced accidents in the immaterial soul. However, he may have been guided by the insight behind his second argument against the generation of souls, which can be read as a rephrasing of Avicenna’s discussion of individuation in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12.78 Since all attributes of an immaterial intellect are universal by definition, Rāzī can reconstruct the situation of those deceased in infancy in terms of the material intellect. This would tally well with the generous return he grants to Avicenna. Perhaps the thesis of the temporal individuation of human beings can be salvaged by recourse to their self-awareness: even undeveloped souls, whose existence borders on nothingness, will be aware of themselves in a unique and unshareable manner (li kullin minhā shu‘ūran bi huwīyatihā al-khās..sa). Thus, their state would resemble that of the flying man; they would indeed exist in an extremely narrow sense, but this would nonetheless be a genuinely individual existence. Rāzī’s clever answer turns on the ambiguity of the pivotal term dhāt. Earlier on, Avicenna has identified a thing’s awareness of itself with the very dhāt of that thing (shu‘ūru al-shay’i bi dhātihi huwa nafsu dhātihi), that is, with its self or essence; the human soul cannot exist without being aware of itself because self-awareness is a necessary constituent of the existence proper to human beings. But if the soul’s self-awareness is identical with its dhāt, then souls must differ by their very essence! And if that is the case, individual souls will be essentially distinct before their respective connections to bodies.79 76 77 78 79

In Najāt III.2, 333, Avicenna describes them as ‘coming to a wealth of God’s mercy and a kind of rest’. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.402–403; Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.391. See Chapter 3.1, 48–50; cf. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.401; and Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.389. Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.402–403; Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.391.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


In his conclusion S·adrā attempts to save Avicenna’s insight according to which self-awareness plays a crucial role in the individuation of immaterial entities, but not without giving Rāzī’s perspicacious point its rightful due. As we recall, Avicenna held that connection to a proper body immediately brings forth an immaterial substance whose subsequent existence is independent of that body and amounts to its awareness of itself. As a result, the self-awareness in question is of an extremely narrow, indeed contentless kind, and it is precisely this feature that Rāzī seizes upon. S·adrā, on the contrary, believes that Rāzī’s challenge can be met if Avicenna’s insight is incorporated into the theory of substantial change. Let us rehearse the essential phases of human development. Over the course of her substantial motion, a single human being comes to exist in various distinct modes. In first coming to be, she is a material form that differs from the forms of minerals or plants only with respect to her cognitive and motive potencies. When these potencies are actualized, and she begins to perceive and to move voluntarily, informed by what she has perceived, she comes to exist in the mental mode.80 From this moment on, the human being is an immaterial entity whose existence is always characterized by self-awareness, or more accurately, amounts to self-awareness. But having first been individuated as material forms, human souls are always already determined as individuals by a multitude of attributes that they inherit from the period they spent inhering in matter. Only after that period, it then follows that each of them is determined by their individual existence (thumma yalzamu ta‘ayyunu kullin minhā bi wujūdihā al-khās..s), which is identical to their self-awareness (‘aynu shu‘ūrihā bi dhātihā), and that is what endures permanently though with a kind of existential renewal.81

Thus, S·adrā’s strategy in meeting Rāzī’s challenge is to incorporate the accidental features due to the body into mental existence as necessary constituents of the self-awareness uniquely exclusive to each human being. Although self-awareness, in the narrow sense of first-personality, does not vary from one person to another, the experiential content and personal attributes that we inherit from our bodies render us individual subjects. On the other hand, S·adrā does recognize the need, as expressed in Shifā’: al-Madkhal I.12, to account for the individuality of these features that 80


Asfār IV.7.3, VIII.430–432; IV.7.6, VIII.449–450; IV.8.2, IX.31–32; IV.9.4, IX.127; IV.11.9, IX.317–318. In IV.9.5, IX.150, S·adrā specifies that mental existence begins at some point during the fourth month of pregnancy. Asfār IV.7.2, VIII.395.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

now belong to an immaterial subject. His solution is that the body-induced attributes, even when divested of their spatiotemporal co-ordinates, remain individual because they are given in first-personal perspectives as in each case uniquely mine. Mental existence thus necessarily consists of both selfawareness and its various determinations. As will become forcefully clear below, when we turn to discussing the consequences of the theory of cognitive unity for his concept of selfawareness, S·adrā opts for the phenomenologically plausible view that we are always aware of ourselves as engaged in an act or undergoing an experience, not as naked first persons divested of all predicates. This plausibility, however, does not come without a price, which is cashed out as a serious weakness in S·adrā’s final stance on human individuality. If selfawareness is individuated by its body-induced content, and that content in turn by belonging to an individual self, S·adrā’s account of the individuation of mental existence turns out to be viciously circular. In this regard it seems that Avicenna was not entirely misguided in emphasizing the primitive and irreducible nature of individual human self-awareness. But notwithstanding the circularity in his reasoning, it is clear that S·adrā’s discussion of this particular application of self-awareness is witness to his thorough familiarity with the subtleties of the traditional concept. What is more, this familiarity is shown compellingly in the treatment of another inherited question. As we recall, Avicenna relied on self-awareness in an inference to the substantiality of the human self: because I can be aware of myself while unaware of all other things, my body in particular, I am independent of those things, my body included, and therefore I exist as an immaterial substance. As we have also seen, the inference to the self’s substantiality was sternly criticized by Abū al-Barakāt and Rāzī, and its conclusion was ultimately rejected by Suhrawardī.82 S·adrā latches on to the debate, again, by means of Rāzī. The argument in question is the one we have already examined in the course of our discussion of Suhrawardī’s critique of the human self’s substantiality. It seems that Rāzī sets out to contest the flying man’s argumentative power in the context of Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.1. In that chapter, the thought experiment was designed to make us pay attention to our self-awareness, which in turn would readily indicate the substantiality of the self we are aware of while unaware of the body.83 But according to Rāzī, nothing in my self-awareness forces me to lean on one view rather than another; yet if the self really is a substance, I should be aware of my 82

See Chapter 5.1.


See Chapter 2.1.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


substantiality whenever I am aware of myself.84 That this is not the case is clear from the bare fact that philosophers debate the issue. S·adrā’s manner of saving the Avicennian inference in the face of Rāzī’s critique follows a pattern pervasive in the Asfār: we have to distinguish between the first-order act of existence, here constituted by human selfawareness, and the second-order act of an intellectual apprehension of it. As an act of mental existence, a mode of presential knowledge, self-awareness is a state of mental existence which is able to provide the basis for many possible kinds of conceptual analysis without being actually constituted by discrete constituents corresponding to the results of the analysis. Rather, the analytic act of intellection introduces the distinctions into what is one to begin with; although the fact that the act of existence in question has a given degree of perfection does provide the basis for those distinctions, for instance for conceiving the corresponding existent as a substance of some sort, the existence in itself is not a composite of substantiality and a given set of specific differentiae.85 To take Avicennian primitive self-awareness as an example, it is different from and prior to any act of reflective self-intellection (such as the act of performing a thought experiment), which involves application of universal concepts and therefore does not entail awareness of oneself as a substance. But in spite of this, it is still sound to say that substantiality is necessarily and self-evidently introduced in the act of selfintellection, because the existent that one finds when reflecting on oneself turns out to be an independently subsisting essence for the kind of which ‘substance’ is the summum genus. Regardless of which aspect of myself I come to focus upon, whether my humanity, my intellectuality or my agency in and through my body, I can only perform this consideration by conceiving of a genus and a differentia, and upon further analysis these will be shown to entail the most general concept of substance as their foundation. In such an analysis, the fact that substantiality is not given in the firstorder act of self-aware existence need no longer be fatal to Avicenna’s argument. In order to function in the role Avicenna had devised for it, it is enough if our first-order self-awareness is such that our second-order intellectual attention to it will necessarily entail the concept of substance.86 This entailment itself, although necessary, need not be obvious, and I do not believe Avicenna himself thought it is, for it is precisely in order to 84 85 86

Rāzī, Mabāh.ith II., II.246–247; Asfār IV.2.3, VIII.50. S·adrā also mentions the critical point in Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.150. See Asfār I.1.1.7, I.78–79. A most lucid account of this aspect of S·adrā’s metaphysics is Bonmariage 2007, 43–47. Asfār IV.2.3, VIII.50.


Mullā S·adrā on self-awareness

render it such that he brings forth arguments like the flying man, designed as it is to rule out the possibility that the self inheres in a body. Thus, the necessity is not to be understood in psychological terms, for the very fact of our disagreement about the question suffices to refute it. On the contrary, we are dealing with a logical necessity which can and will become obvious in sound reflection. If one fails to grasp it, one has simply not reflected upon one’s self-awareness in a correct manner but has rather focused on one or another of its accidental features, such as the seemingly constant presence of the body and one’s agency in and through it. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that S·adrā subscribes to Avicenna’s inference only under these qualifications. When it comes to the foundational level of primitive self-awareness, he seems rather to side with Suhrawardī’s deflationary position, as the following conclusion shows: when a human turns to himself (raja‘a ilā dhātihi) and makes his itness present (ah.dara huwīyatahu), he may neglect all universal meanings, even the meaning of˙ his being a substance, an individual, or a governor for the body. Thus, in examining myself (‘inda mut.āla‘ati dhātī) I only see an existence which apprehends itself as a particular (wujūdan yudriku nafsahu ‘alā wajhi al-juz’īya), and whatever is other than the individual itness to which I refer by ‘I’ is external to myself (dhātī), even the concept ‘I’, the concept of existence, the concept of what apprehends itself (al-mudriki nafsahu), and the concept of governor of the body, or soul, and so forth; for they all are universal cognitions, to which all I refer by ‘it’, whereas I refer to myself (dhātī) by ‘I’. Thus, neglect or ignorance of substantiality does not refute that it is one of the predicates that are essential for the quiddity of a human being, and also of an animal; and it is possible to apply the Master’s [that is, Avicenna’s] discussion here so that the aforementioned contradiction is expelled.87

Even if it can only be understood as the existence of a substance, first-order self-awareness as such consists in nothing but being an I, and it involves no consideration of what kind of thing this I is or what its quiddity is. The second-order reflective consideration of this I as an instantiation of some quiddity differs from the first-order self-awareness because it regards the I as an object, as an it, not as the I it was to begin with. It does this by introducing one of the many possible universal concepts under which the I is subsumed, whether that of a human, individual, soul, existence, or indeed subject or self (the concept ‘I’). That one thereby necessarily also introduces the concept of substance, which is the highest genus of anything subsumed under a specific concept, suffices to save Avicenna’s argument, 87

Asfār IV.2.3, VIII.50–51.

The complicated evidence of self-awareness


but this does not hide the fact that S·adrā’s analysis is tacitly derivative of Suhrawardī.88 Thus, in the end S·adrā conceives of self-awareness as a particular mode of existence (that is, mental existence) rather than an indication of substantiality. But on the other hand, he seems reluctant to follow Suhrawardī to the extreme point of identifying self-awareness with existence (or appearance and light) pure and simple.89 In this regard, he represents a middle stance between his two predecessors, an Aristotelian attempt to do justice to both by incorporating them, under the aforementioned qualifications, into his own account. 88


This is betrayed by the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘it’ as well as the mention of the concept ‘I’. S·adrā here comes very close to Suhrawardī, Talwīh.āt III.5.15, 282–283 Habībī; 115–116 Corbin. For a discussion of this chapter, cf. Chapter 5.2, 118–121. It also provides the basis for Asfār I., III.503–504, where S·adrā endorses the denial of the self’s substantiality in more unqualified terms. However, in this context he does not explicitly address the relevant question, which compromises the demonstrative value of the endorsement. This assessment must, however, be qualified by noting that there are passages which suggest that S·adrā holds all existence to entail a more or less developed type of self-awareness (cf. Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.147–148; IV.2.5, VIII.79; IV.4.1, VIII.184; IV.4.2, VIII.192; IV.11.13, IX.358–362, 364–365). This question, alas, is both so wide and so debatable that I must postpone its treatment to a later occasion.

chapter 8

The self reconsidered: ·S adrian revisions to the Avicennian concept

As our discussion of S·adrā’s sustained strategy shows, he is familiar with the subtleties in his predecessors’ applications of self-awareness in their respective theoretical concerns. This familiarity shows that when he incorporates the inherited concept of self-awareness into his own system of philosophy, he must be conscious of the precise meaning of that concept. Thus, as we turn to discuss his departures from the narrow concept of self-awareness at work in both Avicenna and Suhrawardī, we can rest assured that the departures are made in full awareness.


The self and cognitive unity

S·adrā’s epistemology can be succinctly characterized as a sustained attempt to rehabilitate the ancient theory of knowledge as a unity between the subject and the object of the actual act of cognition.1 An early version of it was Aristotle’s theory of intellection, which famously holds that the intellect is all the intelligibles and that actual intellection collapses with the actual existence of what is understood.2 Later on, the doctrine of cognitive unity became part of the Neoplatonic theory of the intellect as a single indivisible entity, albeit one with an internal structure.3 Yet the venerable provenance notwithstanding, the theory may seem strangely counterintuitive at close inspection. One of its problems, perspicaciously formulated by Avicenna, is that it contradicts the commonsense intuition according to which I am perfectly capable of perceiving or understanding different things at different moments of time. If at time tx I understand and am therefore identical to an object x, whereas at time ty I understand and am therefore identical to object y, then either x and y 1 3

For S·adrā’s epistemology, see now Kalin 2010. 2 Ar. De an. III.5, 430a20; III.7, 431a1. This version of the theory is most prominently present in the crypto-Proclean Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d (see, for instance, XII, 14–15, which corresponds to Proclus, El. Th. 167–169) and˙ the Plotinian ˙ of Aristotle (see, for instance, II.21, 32, which corresponds to Plot. Enn. IV.4.2.4–8; cf. Theology Adamson 2002, 120–121, 152).


The self and cognitive unity


are transitively identical or I do not endure as a substance from tx to ty. The first option is obviously false (an apple is not an orange), and the second entails a rejection of the eminently plausible view according to which the subjects at tx and ty are both me in one and the same sense. According to Avicenna, our only alternative is to deny the theory of cognitive unity, a suspicious innovation which he disparagingly attributes to Porphyry’s intent ‘to speak in imaginative, poetic and mystical (s.ūfīya) expressions’,4 although he does allow that God’s intellection, owing to His absolute unity and immutability, may be a special case for which the theory of cognitive unity is capable of giving its due. Yet in spite of such problems, S·adrā holds the theory of cognitive unity to be true not only of intellection, but of all modes of cognition, including the most elementary types of sense-perception.5 Addressing the case of intellection, he states that the existence of each immaterial form that is actually understood is identical with its existence for the corresponding subject of intellection. In other words, the intelligible ‘human’ that I am thinking of right now is nothing but my act of understanding; the act of understanding exhausts the intelligible existence of the human being. An intelligible can only exist actually if it is actually understood, and this requires a subject of understanding actually understanding that very intelligible. Thus, the two are not really separable from each other.6 This insight is not exclusive to intellection but pertains to all types of cognition: What is sensed . . . is divided into what is sensed potentially and what is sensed actually, and what is sensed actually is united in existence with the actually sensing substance.7

S·adrā corroborates his thesis by a brief argument against alternative theories of perception, that is, the theory of the impression of forms from the material objects in the perceiving soul, the extramission theory of vision,8 and the theory of primitive relationality between the subject and the object 4 5

6 8

Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.6, 239–240 Rahman S·adrā seems to think that once his theory of substantial change has been established, the solution to the problem raised by Avicenna will be all but self-evident. If any entity subject to change has a static identity only when the process of change is considered from an extratemporal perspective as a fourdimensional whole (time being one of its defining dimensions), it will no longer be a problem if an entity, even the human intellect, does not endure unchanged from one act of intellection to another. The intuition of the subject’s enduring identity can be saved by recourse to S·adrā’s view that later phases in the process of substantial change include the earlier ones by transcending them. I will discuss this topic in greater detail in Chapter 8.2. Asfār I., III.340–341. 7 Asfār I., III.342; cf. IV.10.7, IX.200. According to the extramission theory, endorsed by the optician Ibn al-Haytham as well as some philosophers, such as Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, the act of vision consists in the emission of extremely


The self reconsidered

of vision held by both Rāzī and Suhrawardī.9 This is followed by his positive account of perception: On the contrary, sense perception occurs so that an apprehensional luminous form, of which there occurs apprehension and awareness, is emanated from the giver (al-wāhib),10 so that it is both the percipient in act and the perceived in act; prior to that there is neither a percipient nor a perceived except in potency. As regards the existence of a form in proper matter, [the material form] is a preparation for the emanation of that form which is the perceived and the percipient in act. The discussion of this form’s being perception, percipient and perceived by itself (bi ‘aynihi) is like the discussion of the intellectual form’s being intellection, that which understands and that which is understood.11

The passage is remarkably unambiguous: the existence of the perceived form, just as that of the form understood, is nothing but its being perceived which in turn is unqualifiedly identical to the corresponding act of perceiving. We should, however, pay careful attention to S·adrā’s somewhat oblique statement towards the end of the passage, namely, that cognitive unity only concerns the mental mode of existence.12 While not an invention of S·adrā’s, mental existence is a concept that he articulates at a considerably greater length than any of his subtle yet nonetheless material rays from the eye. When these rays encounter extramental objects, they bring back information to the eye, which then results in vision. For an extended discussion of the impressionist and extramission theories of perception in S·adrā, see Kalin 2010, 118–135. 9 Asfār I., III.342. These critical comments are further developed in the psychological section of the Asfār (see IV.4.6, VIII.210–212), where S·adrā explicitly refers to the present context. 10 This is a reference either to the active intellect, which was standardly referred to as the giver of forms (wāhib al-s.uwar), or more vaguely to the immaterial origin of both the human soul and all material things, and thereby ultimately to God as the origin of all (Asfār IV.4.6, VIII.212 speaks of ‘the power of God’). This ambiguity notwithstanding, the crucial point is clear: the perceived, imagined and understood forms, that is, the content of experience as experienced, are not caused by external material things but brought about by the immaterial origin of the soul. In this sense, all experience is generated from within the soul. 11 Asfār I., III.342–343; cf. IV.1.1, VIII.18; IV.2.5, VIII.74; IV.3.3, VIII.98; IV.4.5, VIII.208–209; IV.4.6, VIII.212; and IV.8.7, IX.92. 12 Cf., however, Asfār IV.3.9, VIII.155, where S·adrā says that in its descent to govern the body, the soul ‘becomes, for instance, in touching identical with the touching organ, and in smelling and tasting identical with that which smells and tastes’ (my emphasis). I believe that this passage can be interpreted in a manner that salvages S·adrā’s consistent distinction between the material and the mental. As a material form, the soul is of course responsible for the proper functioning of the cognitive organs, and in a sense those organs in their action can be identified with their form. Yet while this aspect of the soul’s action may be parallel to the mental act of perception, it is not an instance of cognitive unity in the sense expounded here, but an instance of the soul’s action as form that is in principle not different from its corresponding action in the organs of digestion, for example. S·adrā’s focus in this context is precisely on the soul’s descent to matter, and for this purpose it may be relevant to emphasize the material circumstances parallel to but not causally active upon the mental event of perception.

The self and cognitive unity


predecessors,13 and that is pivotal to his explicit distinction between the two possible descriptions of perception. We can of course describe perception by means of the material process that takes place in the perceptual organs of the body, but such a description will not grasp the experiential reality, or the mental phenomenon, of perception. In this latter sense, perception is an indivisible act of mental existence, the subject of which cannot be really distinguished from its object, because the subject only exists in unity with the object as the subject perceiving this object, and inversely the object only exists as an object for this subject. This is corroborated by S·adrā’s comparison, towards the end of the chapter devoted to the unity theory of knowledge, of the relation between the subject and the object of cognition to the hylomorphic relation between matter and form. The two are relations only in a qualified sense and must be distinguished from relations proper, which prevail between two independently subsisting things such as a house and its inhabitant, property and its owner, or a parent and her offspring, precisely because in them the relata are interdependent in existence. Matter can only exist as actualized by form just as form requires matter for its subsistence; similarly, just as there can be no object of cognition without a subject to cognize it, the subject of cognition needs something to cognize in order actually to be such a subject.14 Finally, S·adrā’s account of mental existence denies any causal power to extramental objects, even in the case of perception.15 The content of perceptual experience is produced by them only in the sense that they provide the circumstantial conditions for the emanation of experiential content from the higher principle that is the origin of both the soul itself and its content.16 As a consequence, S·adrian mental existence is thoroughly detached from matter. Even though its objects may have a spatial structure and location and in this sense be analogous to material things, their 13 14 15 16

For an overview of S·adrā’s arguments for mental existence, see now Marcotte 2011. Knowledge is discussed as a mode of existence in Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.143–144. Asfār I., III.345; cf. I., III.498–499. Asfār IV.4.6, VIII.212–213; cf. IV.4.7, VIII.217; IV.11.13, IX.376. Asfār IV.10.5, IX.189; IV.10.10, IX.245–246. In true Neoplatonic fashion, this source is also conceived to be the soul’s goal in its development towards the perfection proper to it, which S·adrā seems to identify with the active intellect. In Asfār I., III.498–499, S·adrā says that there ‘should be’ (yanbaghī an yakūna) a principle for sense-perception analogous to the active intellect in the case of intellection. Finally, in Asfār IV.4.12, VIII.239–240, he states that objects of perception depend on imagination for their subsistence, whereas the objects of imagination depend similarly on the intellect. The idea is that the higher principles are thereby potentially present in the actuality of the lower – what is perceived can also be imagined and ultimately understood.


The self reconsidered

spatiality is not material but experiential, a matter of either imagination or perception.17 The consequences of the theory of cognitive unity to S·adrā’s discussion of self-awareness are clear. As Avicenna must have perceived when he set out to argue against the theory, the claim of a strong unity between the self as the first-personal subject of experience on the one hand, and the objective content of its experience on the other, amounts to a denial of the reality of the narrow type of self-awareness endorsed by both Avicenna and Suhrawardī. If the I is one with its determinations, we can never encounter pure I-ness divested of all its possible acts and passions. I would now like to argue that S·adrā is clearly aware of this consequence by means of two separate but mutually corroborative discussions that bear on the topic. The first consists in an extended discussion on self-awareness that S·adrā engages in in order to lay out the principles needed for understanding God’s knowledge, while the second is a discussion of the soul’s faculties from the psychological section of the Asfār. The fifth principle S·adrā presents as requisite for making sense of God’s knowledge of Himself and the world of His creation focuses on the immediacy of our awareness not just of ourselves in the narrow sense, but also of our various faculties: Just as the soul apprehends itself (dhātahā) by means of the very form of itself (bi nafsi .sūrati dhātihā), not by means of another form, similarly it apprehends many of its apprehensive and motive faculties, not by means of another mental form.18

The idea that our faculties are immediately given, or present, to us is of course familiar from Suhrawardī’s introduction of the concept of knowledge as presence. That S·adrā is relying on a Suhrawardian source here, most likely al-Mashāri‘ wa al-mut.ārah.āt III.1.7, is suggested by substantial similarities between his arguments for the principle and those Suhrawardī brought forth in that chapter.19 But instead of the similarities, let us focus on S·adrā’s development of the inherited material. 17

18 19

Asfār I., III.512–515. In his eschatology, S·adrā puts forth an argument for our embodied existence in the hereafter, only the body there is immaterial, an exclusively experienced body (cf. Asfār IV.11.4, IX.303–304; IV.11.17, IX.389–390). Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.150–151. Suhrawardī, Mashāri‘ III.7.1 is discussed in extenso in Chapter 6.1, 134–141. For the similarities between the two texts, compare Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.151–152 (S·adrā’s second argument) with Suhrawardī, Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 484; Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.152 (S·adrā’s third argument from the evidence of pain) with Suhrawardī, Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 485; and finally, Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.153–154 (attention as a condition of actual apprehension) with Suhrawardī, Mashāri‘ III.7.1, 485.


The self and cognitive unity

The first thing to notice is that S·adrā’s formulation of the principle is not entirely unambiguous. Are the other faculties apprehended simply by being aware of oneself, that is, as necessary constituents of one’s self, or are they apprehended by themselves, as an immediate consequence of their operation, so that awareness of them is merely structurally analogous to self-awareness, not caused by it? Dissolving the ambiguity is pivotal to our topic, for the first alternative would clearly be incompatible with the venerable argument of the flying man and the narrow concept of self-awareness it was designed to corroborate. The second alternative, on the contrary, would merely amount to saying that by operating one’s cognitive faculties one is necessarily aware of them, and thus it would be perfectly coherent with the flying man, for it is precisely the non-operation of the faculties that the thought experiment hinges upon. Fortunately for us, S·adrā substantiates the principle with five arguments and an explication of considerable length, which provide the key for unravelling the ambiguity. The first four arguments deal with the immediacy of sense perception in general terms and therefore do not immediately bear upon our topic. But a fifth, thronal (‘arshī) argument, that is, one based on S·adrā’s own intuition,20 is more consequential: [I]n the beginning of its creation, the soul is devoid of both conceptual (tas.awwurīya) and assentual (tas.dīqīya) knowledge. There is no doubt that the employment of instruments – such as the senses – is a voluntary act, not a natural act, and so it undoubtedly depends on knowledge of those instruments. If all knowledge were through the impression of a form from what is known, then as a result its dependence on the employment of instruments would depend on knowledge of those instruments, and so the discussion would be reiterated; and both circle and regress are impossible.21

S·adrā starts from a denial of innate knowledge, stating that the acquisition of knowledge requires a knowing use of cognitive faculties and organs. The problem is, if one is not immediately aware of the faculties to begin with, if one is completely lacking in innate knowledge about how to operate them, one will never get underway with the learning process. Were the familiarity with the faculties not innate, then in order to learn that one has the faculties, let alone how to operate them, one would have to acquire knowledge about them. Since those very faculties are the means by which one acquires knowledge of anything, one would have to acquire knowledge that one has cognitive faculties, and learn how to use them, by having, knowing and using them, which of course results in either a vicious circle or an infinite regress. Thus, 20

For the term ‘arshī in S·adrā, see Nasr 1978, 56, and Corbin 2009a, liii–liv.


Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.152.


The self reconsidered by necessity the soul’s first knowledge is its knowledge of itself (bi dhātihā), and then its knowledge of its faculties and instruments, which are the external and the internal senses; these two are presential knowledge.22

The conclusion is reminiscent of Aristotle’s account of phenomenal consciousness as a concomitant of the basest acts of perception.23 According to Aristotle, our awareness that we perceive is indubitable but needs nonetheless to be given a psychological explanation. Since adding a higher-order faculty to perceive that we perceive would result in infinite regress, he suggests that we close the inevitable reflexive circle at the first possible instant and build phenomenal consciousness into our account of firstorder sense-perception as one of its necessary constituents. But in spite of the similarity in argument, S·adrā differs from Aristotle by explicitly qualifying that it is not the individual faculties as such that we should conceive to be self-aware. Following Avicenna, he holds instead that only the primitively self-aware soul, which operates them all, can have them present to itself and thereby be aware of them.24 This unity of subject in all experience had already been anticipated in the first argument for the principle under discussion, where the soul was described as the single subject of awareness in the operations of its various faculties, such as thinking, imagination and sense-perception. S·adrā here states that these operations are immediately present to the soul, and what is more, their respective objects, constitutive as they are to the operations, are present to it through or in the operations. This becomes particularly evident in the straightforward identification of the power of thought with the concrete individual forms that it has as its objects: ‘what receives these operations and transformations [that is, the operations characteristic of thinking] is nothing but concrete individual forms, I mean the power of thought’.25 This is of course a consequence of S·adrā’s broad subscription to the theory of cognitive unity, and, as if to underline this, he concludes the argument by saying that in the final analysis the soul sees and is aware of the objects of its cognitive operations ultimately ‘by seeing itself (bi bas.ari dhātihā)’.26 This is because the soul’s operation and the objects constitutive to that operation are in turn constitutive to the soul’s awareness of itself as a self engaged in this particular operation. Thus, in the end S·adrā’s emphasis on the unity of experience leads him to depart from Avicenna: engaged in its operations, the soul is not a detachable I or pure first-personality that can attach to various 22 24 25

Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.153. 23 Ar. De an. III.2, 425b11–17. See Chapter 1.1, 12–15. Cf., for instance, Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, 253–254 Rahman; and see Chapter 4.2, 66–71. Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.151; my emphasis. 26 Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.151; my emphasis.

The self and cognitive unity


contents without being dependent on or determined by them. In S·adrā, the soul is literally one with and inseparable from its acts. This point is made more forcefully in the explication of the fifth argument. Immediately after the passage quoted above, S·adrā says: Then after these two knowledges [that is, the soul’s knowledge of itself and of its faculties], there emerges from the soul’s self to itself (min dhāti al-nafsi li dhātihā) the employment of instruments without any conception of this act, that is, of the use of instruments, or assent of its usefulness, like in the case of other voluntary acts which originate from us outside the body. Thus, this [employment of instruments] is another type of volition, not by means of intent (al-qas.d) and deliberation (al-ruwīya), even though it is not separate from the knowledge of it; for here volition is identical with knowledge, whereas in other voluntary acts originating from the soul it is preceded by a knowledge of them and by an assent of their usefulness. As regards this act which is like the soul’s employment of faculties, senses and the like, it emerges from itself (‘an dhātihā), not from its deliberation; thus, its self by itself (dhātuhā bi dhātihā) necessitates the employment of instruments, not by means of an additional volition or additional knowledge. Rather, the soul in the very beginning of its creation knows itself (bi dhātihā) and loves [itself] and its action by a love generated from the self (al-dhāt), and it is forced to employ the instruments which is all it is capable of.27

This rich passage not only emphatically corroborates the claim that human self-awareness is not separable from but built in to our various acts, but also gives us a clue to how S·adrā thinks the awareness of acts follows from selfawareness. In order to explicate this point, S·adrā makes an interesting phenomenological distinction between two types of voluntary acts. The more commonplace type involves deliberation and conscious intentionality, and it is exemplified by the all too familiar situation of having to choose between two compelling but mutually exclusive goals of action, for instance, whether to head home and spend time with one’s offspring or to stay sitting at the office in the labour of a delayed paper. Regardless of what would be the complete account of the potentially very complex set of reasons and motives which contribute to making the eventual choice, it seems safe to assume, as S·adrā does, that this type of conscious volition involves minimally two cognitive acts: a conception (tas.awwur) of the alternative courses of action, and a belief in or assent to (tas.dīq) their respective values.28 It is because of these explicit acts of conception and belief that the choice can be called a conscious one, or as S·adrā says, performed ‘by means of intent and deliberation’. But having cleared that, we must note that S·adrā describes the more 27

Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.153.


For tas.awwur and tas.dīq in S·adrā, see Lameer 2006.


The self reconsidered

familiar case only in order to characterize the other, less commonplace type of voluntary action and that it is precisely this other type that is involved in the explanation of how the human soul’s self-awareness entails its awareness of its operations. This less familiar type of voluntary action is not characterized by explicit deliberation and belief but is rather identical to the knowledge of actually performing the voluntary act. Since in the absence of explicit conception of the pursued goal there can be no volition in the sense of free choice, this sort of act is voluntary only in the sense that it is not forced, that in the moment of acting I am aware of causing the act myself, even though I have never decided to do so. To consider an example, when I suddenly come to think of my deceased grandfather, I am fully aware of both that I did not decide beforehand to think of him now and that I myself nevertheless am the agent and the subject thinking that very thought. It is in this sense that the soul employs its faculties: nothing forces it to do this, it acts by itself, but at the same time it never chooses whether or not to employ its faculties, for it always finds itself in the process of already actually employing them. It is true that in the second paragraph S·adrā does speak of the soul being in some sense forced (udt.urrat) to put its faculties to use because its awareness of itself entails˙ a loving, interest-laden relation to itself and its acts. However, I believe that in order to make any sense of the passage, we have to distinguish this sense of being forced from being forced by an external cause, for S·adrā consistently describes the soul’s operation of its faculties as free precisely because of the absence of external causes. The soul’s free voluntary operation of its faculties is forced only in the sense that it follows naturally, and therefore necessarily, from the soul’s essence, and is thus not a matter of choice. The soul by itself necessarily proceeds to operate by means of its faculties. But if we find ourselves ‘from the beginning of our creation’ acting freely by ourselves, no one will ever be aware of herself as a mere I detached from all possible acts. Even the flying man will be aware of its interest-laden relation to the body – if not otherwise, then at least by being frustrated in his attempts to act. However, I believe S·adrā’s point goes deeper still, for he is not content to say that our self-awareness is always accompanied with the awareness of performing some of the acts characteristic to us. Rather, as becomes clear from the explication shortly after the present passage, he insists on the stronger claim that our self-awareness is one with the actual performance of those acts. In an argument against the implied suggestion that his theory of knowledge fails to account for the differences in people’s acquired knowledge, S·adrā says:

The self and cognitive unity


[When] being a knower and being known is realized between two things, there is no doubt about an essential connection between them in accordance with existence, and so a unificational connection or existential bond of one knowing the other is realized between both of the two things, provided that there is no obstacle due to one of them being deficient in existence or mixed with non-existence and veiled by dark appendices, and that connection requires the occurrence of one of them to the other and its being revealed to it. It may take place between the very self of what is known (nafsi dhāti al-ma‘lūm), in accordance with its concrete existence, and the self of the knower (dhāti al-‘ālim), like in the soul’s knowledge of itself (fī ‘ilmi al-nafsi bi dhātihā), its attributes, its faculties and the forms established on the tablets of its awareness, or it may be between a form which occurs from what is known and is additional to its self (dhātihi) and the self of the knower (dhāti al-‘ālim), like in the soul’s knowledge of what is external to itself (dhātihā) and the self of its faculties and its awareness (dhāti quwanhā wa mashā‘irihā), and it is called ‘occurrent knowledge’ or ‘emergent knowledge’. What is really apprehended is also here the very form that is present, not what is external to it, and when it is said of the external that it is known, this is in a secondary sense. Similarly ‘existent’ is said of both existence itself and of the existing quiddity, but what really exists is the first division. It is really concrete and distinct without the quiddity, for [the quiddity] in itself is something obscure, unconcrete in essence. Thus, when the word ‘existent’ is applied to it, this is in a secondary sense in respect to a bond to existence.29

S·adrā begins by asserting in general terms his thesis of the unity in existence between any knowing subject and the object she knows. The two can only exist as an actual knower and something actually known in a single act of mental existence. This amounts to saying that the connection between them must be understood not as a relation prevailing between two independently existing things, but rather as a mode of existence proper to knowledge: the knower and what is known literally first come to be in an act of this type of existence. S·adrā conceives of this shared actuality in mental existence abstracted from any reference to or causal dependence on what is external to it. On the level of mental existence, that is, in the absence of any darkness or deficiency due to matter, actual existence simply requires that what is known occurs or is revealed to the knower. The paradigmatic example of such a union is the subject’s knowledge of herself, her faculties and their operations, along the lines we have just described. But as S·adrā strikingly asserts here, it also holds of all forms known, that is, of the objective constituents of acts of mental existence. No matter how natural it may seem to believe that the objects of our experience, the figures, 29

Asfār III.1.3.1, VI.154–155.


The self reconsidered

colours, sounds, smells and textures that we are aware of as interdependent properties of substance-like objects, are mere representations of extramental things that exist independently of our consideration, and that the latter are the true objects of our knowledge, S·adrā explicitly states that this conviction is due to an implicit secondary consideration, a tacit addition to the basic level of mental existence that we have to start from. Ultimately it is nothing but an unfounded hypothesis that we have formed on the basis of experience acquired over a long period of time, neither a necessary constituent of the act of mental existence nor something necessarily entailed by the awareness inherent to that act of existence. On the contrary, the phenomenal object, abstracted from any possible reference to a world outside experience, is just as constitutive to the act of mental existence as its selfaware subject. Thus, for S·adrā self-awareness is nothing less than a constitutive part of mental existence (all mental existence is aware of itself), but it is also not more than a constituent of it. I can of course distinguish myself as the subject of my experience from any object I am aware of, and I can coin various terms that reify this result of my analysis into a substance conceived independent of the cognitive attribute it was distinguished from. S·adrā does not deny that we can think and speak of the two constituents of mental existence as two independent existents which can survive their mutual connection in the particular act of mental existence that we started from. Indeed, this is precisely what Avicenna and Suhrawardī had done in their arguments for a narrow concept of self-awareness as pure first-personality or I-ness. Rather, S·adrā’s point is that such a postulation of a mutually independent subject and object is always secondary to a primordial experience in which the two figure as one and requires that a second-order analytic operation is performed on the first-order act of mental existence. But distinguishability in analysis does not entail distinction in reality. Neither the subject nor the object of the act of mental existence exists really independent of the other, but only as twin constituents of the act of existence that alone is real, the experience of this subject knowing this object. The inseparability of self-awareness from the unified act of mental existence, of which it is one constituent, resurfaces in the context of an argument for the metaphysical priority of the mental cognitive faculties in relation to their counterparts among the organs of the body. [W]hen a human being’s external faculties and his corporeal senses are stilled by sleep, loss of consciousness (al-ighmā’) or [something] else, he will often find of himself (nafsihi) that he hears, sees, smells, touches, strikes or walks,

The self and cognitive unity


and so he has in himself (fī dhātihi) these sensations, faculties and instruments with no deficiency or lack of any of them, although they are not established in this world – that is, the world of sense and observation – for otherwise anyone with a sound sense would observe them, which is not the case. It is thus known that their dwelling is another world, which is the world of the hidden and the internal.30

The argument relies on a piece of evidence which S·adrā clearly believes to be obvious on the basis of his interlocutor’s personal experience: any adult human being must have imagined or dreamt herself as perceiving, acting or reacting in all manner of ways without a corresponding physical process taking place in the body that could be observed by another person. This leads S·adrā to the conclusion that the faculties, the sufficient means to perform acts proper to them and the acts themselves are in the soul or the self that is aware of itself as their subject. Of course, any modern reader will consider the case inconclusive, at least in the form S·adrā has given here, for he has failed to address the possibility that the sleeper’s experiences are dependent on physical processes taking place in the brain. In spite of his aversion to the pursuit of such practical sciences as medicine, S·adrā certainly knew of the cognitive functions postGalenic authors like Avicenna had accorded to the brain, and he was fully aware that inferences concerning the brain are hardly a matter of straightforward observation. Moreover, the examples of sleep and loss of consciousness readily bring to mind the Avicennian discussion of the self-awareness of a sleeping or intoxicated person in the Ishārāt.31 If it is not entirely unlikely that S·adrā had the Ishārāt on his table here, it seems strange that he should have so thoroughly failed to grasp Avicenna’s central intuition according to which the possible lack of any experiential content in the sleeper’s mind is due precisely to the broken connection between her self-aware soul and the cognitive organs in the body, the brain in particular. In the final analysis, I do not believe that S·adrā’s argument, if taken alone, survives this criticism. However, he may not have intended it to be conclusive, but merely as one piece of evidence which, when supported by further evidence and proper arguments, provides valid support for dualism, although on its own it can only provide a pointer of sorts towards that view. The qualification towards the end of the passage suggests that S·adrā’s immediate point is to highlight the strict distinction between mental and corporeal existence. For him, the fact that a complete breakdown of the connection between the soul and the cognitive organs of the body entails no 30

Asfār IV.8.7, IX.90.


Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 119; see Chapter 4.2, 80–84.


The self reconsidered

cessation of mental activity corroborates his strategy of discussing the variety of experiential phenomena – the awareness we have of ourselves as hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, striking, walking and so forth – in exclusively mental terms. This move, on the other hand, is crucial for understanding another difference from Avicenna’s discussion of the sleeper. As we recall, Avicenna employed the special cases of the sleeping and the intoxicated person to argue for a narrow type of self-awareness that can plausibly be said to remain even in states lacking all experiential content. S·adrā’s strategy is the polar opposite: because the sleeper’s experience is not empty, her cognitive faculties and their acts must take place in the sleeper herself, not in the body. Later on in the same chapter, he ventures to formulate the same point in even stronger terms: the psychic human (al-insānu al-nafsī) has sense-perceptions of things by himself (bi dhātihi) and judges them by himself (bi dhātihi), not by means of a natural instrument that he would need in his apprehension and act; thus, although his apprehension of external percepts is by means of an additional form that is present to him or occurs in him, his apprehension of it is by means of those very forms, not by means of another form, for otherwise a regress to a multiplication of apprehensional forms would result. Thus, his self by itself (dhātuhu bi dhātihi) is sight for apprehending what is visible and hearing for apprehending what is audible; and in this manner for every species of what is perceived, and so he in himself (fī dhātihi) is hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch for himself (li dhātihi). You know from the preceding the unity of the sense with what is sensed, and so he is the sense of all senses. Furthermore, he judges by himself (bi dhātihi) about estimative and other premises, not by means of anything additional to the forms of the premises, and he is desire for himself (li dhātihi) of what is desirable and anger for himself (li dhātihi) of what is repulsive, with no additional desire or anger.32

The somewhat unusual term ‘psychic human’ is derived from the Theology of Aristotle, which provides the framework for much of the chapter our passage is embedded in.33 It refers to a human being that has left the mode of existence proper to a material form and ascended to the mental mode of existence, being therefore a self-aware existence, but that has not yet become a pure intellect.34 In other words, S·adrā is describing a rather commonplace human experience when he states that the psychic human’s 32 33 34

Asfār IV.8.7, IX.92. Cf., in particular, the extended discussion on different levels of human being in ThA X.52–136, 142–154, based on Plot. Enn. VI.7.2.53–VI.7.11.36. Asfār IV.8.7, IX.89.

The self and cognitive unity


self is by itself, for itself and in itself the five ‘external’ senses as well as all of the Avicennian internal senses, represented here by the governing faculty of estimation, the motive faculties of desire and anger, and ultimately the intellect as well, if that is what the ‘other premises’ refers to. He does acknowledge the fact that we commonly take sense perception to be caused by extramental entities and to have those entities as its proper objects, for later on in the chapter he qualifies his thesis by saying that sense perception, unlike imagination and intellection, requires the presence of extramental objects as a necessary circumstantial condition for the creation of mental percepts in the soul.35 However, he does not seem to think that this in any way alters the fact that when considered exclusively in terms of mental existence, or as phenomenal experience, perception has a mental origin and should be understood as a unified act of mental existence consisting of both self-awareness and objective content.36 After all qualifications, the central point remains that the self-aware subject of mental existence is in a very robust sense one with and inseparable from her various experiential contents. The way in which S·adrā repeatedly insists on the point suggests that he is fully aware of departing from the traditional, narrow concept of selfawareness, and the explicit reference to his general theory of cognitive unity gives out his motive for the departure. The same point is revisited in a later chapter designed to elucidate the subsistence of the human soul in the hereafter. Having dealt with alternative interpretations of the strikingly sensualistic descriptions of the afterlife in the Qur’ān, S·adrā offers his own account according to which the afterlife is just as real and concrete as this life, only it is lived purely mentally, free from any connection to matter. As a consequence, the afterlife is stronger in experiential terms than our mundane existence here and now. Since the human soul is of an immaterial origin, it can create immaterial mental forms by itself. Its connection to the body sets certain conditions to this creation, and since these conditions are constantly changing due to the unceasing material process in the body, the soul’s existence in the mental sphere is also fleeting, impermanent and weak. But when the soul is separated from the body, intermittently in states like sleep or ecstasy and permanently in death, it can create its percepts free from those material conditions, as a result of which they will be stronger and more stable.37 35 36


Asfār IV.8.7, IX.94–95. Cf. Asfār IV.10.10, IX.237–241, where S·adrā, following Ghazālī, makes an explicit distinction between the content and the cause of a mental state. The experience of pain or sexual pleasure is the same regardless of whether it is caused by an external wound or intercourse, or one that is merely imagined. Asfār IV.10.10, IX.244–245.


The self reconsidered

To corroborate this argument S·adrā describes the ascent to the afterlife by means of the traditional trope, of Plotinian origin and familiar from both Avicenna and Suhrawardī,38 of returning to oneself. Do you not see that whenever the soul is relieved from the concern and the necessary movements in preserving this body made up of incongruent things on the verge of falling apart, and the external senses are suspended of their act . . . it seizes the opportunity and returns to itself (dhātihā) to some extent – though not entirely, because the natural, vegetative and other faculties [remain] in operation . . . Thus, through this return the soul becomes an originator for forms and observes them by means of senses which are in itself (dhātihā), with no participation of the body, and so it has in itself (dhātihā) hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch; for if it didn’t have these five in itself (dhātihā), how could a human in the state of sleep or lack of consciousness see, hear, smell, taste or touch while his external senses are suspended of their apprehensions? . . . Just as these five corporeal ones go back to a single sense, which is the common sense, so all the senses and the apprehensive and motive faculties of the soul go back to a single faculty which is its luminous self (dhāt) that is emanative of God’s permission, might and power, and during its return from this world to itself (dhātihā) its apprehension of things becomes identical with its power. If its return to itself – even though it [remains] operative in the body to some extent – gives rise to the creation of forms in this manner, what do you think when it leaves the connection and all the obstacles behind and returns to itself (dhātihā) and to the self of its origin (dhāti mabda’ihā) entirely?39

Since the argument is remarkably clear as it stands, let us concentrate on the important formulations: the soul has its perceptual content in itself, and, what is more, its self is the very faculty of perception and motion in a single act of mental existence. If that is a description of the soul as it is in itself, temporally or permanently cut off from all conscious action related to the body,40 then we have here a clear parallel to the state of the flying man. But S·adrā’s description of the state could scarcely be more drastically at variance with that of Avicenna and Suhrawardī; for him, the soul’s awareness of itself, that is, its very existence in the mental mode, necessarily entails awareness of its cognitive and motive capacities as well as the corresponding acts. When this entailment is understood in the framework of the 38

39 40

Cf. ThA I.21, 22 (based on Plot. Enn. IV.8.1.1–4); VIII.150, 116 (based on Plot. Enn. V.8.10.39–40); Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 119 (see Chapter 4.2, 80); and Suhrawardī, Talwīh.āt III.3.1, 239 Habībī, 70 Corbin (see Chapter 6.1, 127–128). Asfār IV.10.10, IX.245–246. Cf. Asfār IV.8.3, IX.53. For the unconscious nature of vegetative acts, see S·adrā’s answer to Abū alBarakāt’s related comments in Asfār IV.2.5, VIII.77–79.

The self and cognitive unity


epistemological theory of cognitive unity, as we have seen S·adrā explicitly do, it becomes clear that the narrow concept of self-awareness that Avicenna introduced and Suhrawardī subscribed to appears fundamentally problematic, for consistent systematic reasons. According to S·adrā, self-awareness is always part and parcel of a complex experiential whole, a necessary constituent of a unified act of mental existence. While Avicenna and Suhrawardī would probably have been ready to admit that in the majority of normal human cases self-awareness is conjoined to manifold experiential content that one is thereby aware of as one’s own, there remains a principal divide that separates S·adrā from them and that can be spelled out by means of the thought experiment of the flying man. The question we should ask is whether the flying man is an argument per impossibile.41 For Avicenna and Suhrawardī, the case of the flying man may well be impossible but only in the sense that no one ever actualizes that particular potentiality by coming to exist in such a state, that his is an exclusively imaginary case. As a consequence, the flying man’s situation can still be called logically possible, that is, the inherent features of the essences denoted by the relevant concepts allow that someone can have such a thin experience that it consists of nothing but being an I. What is more, there remains a sense in which the case is nomically possible as well, for, given the omnipotence of God, He can presumably create anew a fully developed human being to float in the air without any perceptions at all, if only He happened so to choose. For S·adrā, however, the impossibility runs deeper. While the flying man may be a useful means of analysis, and can even provide the basis for a valid argument for the soul’s immateriality,42 it entails no real consequences for the self-awareness involved. It is not a real possibility for a mentally existing human being to have first-personal experience without content, because the existence of the first person necessarily gives rise to content it experiences as its own. The S·adrian flying man, or animal, would be minimally aware of being capable of cognition and voluntary motion and would be driven by its nature to put its capacities to use. Even if we suppose that he were prevented from actually using them, he would, unlike his Avicennian and Suhrawardian peers, be aware of what he is lacking, subject to all the anguish of a soul divested of its body. 41


Let it be emphasized that the following is entirely a product of rational reconstruction and should be understood as a heuristic device designed to articulate the difference between S·adrā and his predecessors. I realize that our protagonists’ interpretations of the modal terms (‘possible’ and ‘impossible’) may not yield to this manner of exposition. As we saw in Chapter 7.1: 164–166, S·adrā presents it as one of the arguments for the immateriality of the animal soul in Asfār IV.2.2, VIII.47.


The self reconsidered

Thus again, S·adrā would maintain, in order to arrive at the narrow concept of self-awareness, we must perform a second-order analysis of the immediately given first-order act of mental existence that each of us finds in her own experience. The flying man is a potent means of performing that analysis, but we must be careful not to postulate a really existing pure I to correspond with the result of the analysis. Each of us is an I, that much is true, but always an I engaged in a concrete act, immersed in a concrete perception or thought, driven by a concrete desire, and so forth. This critical departure is, I presume, not entirely implausible in light of available phenomenological evidence, but S·adrā’s primary motivation for making it seems nevertheless to have been his firm adherence to a particularly broad version of the theory of cognitive unity. The picture that emerges from the chapters in which he makes that departure is one of a thinker who is willing to save as much of the inherited discussion of self-awareness as is possible in light of a commitment he has made in another context. The same is true of the revision his theory of substantial change drives him to make to his predecessors’ understanding of human selfhood.


Identity in substantial change

The narrow self that Avicenna’s concept of self-awareness entails is intimately connected to a particular view of the identity of an individual human being. This view provided the basis for Avicenna’s primary argument against the unity theory of knowledge, but as we have seen, it was also explicitly connected to the topic of personal identity over time in an argument for psychological substance dualism found in the Mubāh.athāt.43 What endures unchanged through the constant variation of my corporeal acts and experiential content is the I in me, the narrow first person that is the agent and subject of them all in one and the same sense. This concept of self is also familiar from another argument for dualism, that is, the one from the unity of experience, which we have seen S·adrā apply in much the same manner as his predecessors. If I first smell coffee, then begin to desire a cup, and in the end proceed to stand up in order to walk to the coffee room, are not these three constituents of the explanation of my action quite obviously temporally consecutive states? And if that is the case, does not the plausibility of the explanation hinge on the fact that the I remains one and the same despite the changes that result in its three distinct states? Finally, since much of the power of these arguments is derived from the interlocutors’ 43

Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt VI.402–403, 146–147 Bīdārfar (cf. 453, 227 Badawī); see Chapter 4.1, 75–79.

Identity in substantial change


shared intuitions, it must be presumed that the idea of a stable I in each of us is not entirely lacking in commonsense plausibility either. It therefore seems that human self-awareness and selfhood pose a major problem for S·adrā’s theory of substantial change, according to which all aspects of created entities such as human beings, their respective substantial cores included, are subject to change. Even if the I or the self is in some sense the core and essence of my being, its stability turns out to be but an illusion. If everything in me, down to the very core of my first-personality, is subject to change, can I in any reasonable sense identify with the former phases of my substantial development? What makes the present I the same as the I ten years, ten days or even ten minutes ago? If there is no stable I in me, but merely a series of consequent and distinct I-phases, can any of these legitimately claim to be the proper subject of the change – in what sense can I now say that I am living my life? To conclude our investigation of S·adrā’s concept of self-awareness, I would now like to argue that he not only is aware of these problems but also attempts to provide a solution to them. Faced with the choice of whether to qualify the doctrine of substantial change or to revise the concept of human selfhood, he clearly opts for the latter, despite the fact that he has found use for a great deal of the relevant Avicennian and Suhrawardian insights. S·adrā’s solution is based on a new concept of identity introduced in his theory of substantial change. To begin with, he defines the concretely existing individual nature, which corresponds to the substantial essence that provides the basis for the identity of an individual entity in the Peripatetic framework, as a continuum of substantial change.44 Now, we can of course pause to consider any given phase of the continuum, and by analysing it into its constituents we can distinguish an essence for it that is distinct from other features that provide its accidental determinations. We can also compare the essences derived from the analyses of two or more such phases and judge that the phases are instantiations of a single essence and therefore identical in terms of what they are. However, we must not thereby neglect the fact that the identity we then perceive between the essences is possible only because they share in a quiddity that we understand. In other words, the identity is intelligible and therefore a case of the instantiation of a universal quiddity in two or more particulars. But since it is the identity of a temporally existing individual entity that we are concerned with, we cannot settle with this, for, considered as individuals, the essences in the phases we 44

Asfār I.1.7.19, III.74–76.


The self reconsidered

have analysed remain numerically and specifically distinct.45 The I that woke up this morning is the same as the I reading these words only in the sense that both are considered in abstraction from all other features of the two individual acts of existence, that is, as instantiations of a quiddity such as ‘I-ness’; but considered in themselves, the I-that-woke-up-this-morning is distinct from the I-that-reads-these-lines. However, the temporal continuum of existence to which the phases belong does have a genuine individual identity. This identity is above change, but not in the sense of enduring through time, for it is based on an extratemporal consideration of the continuum as a temporally extended whole.46 In his articulation of this new concept of identity, S·adrā relies on the notion of ‘fixed essence’ (‘ayn thābit) introduced by the great Sufi theoretician Ibn ‘Arabī. As the ultimate foundations of the identity of individual existents, the fixed essences are atemporally present in God’s mind, but as such they are mere potentialities that lack the kind of existence proper to them. Their mode of existence in reality is to be unfolded in time as processes of substantial development towards increasing perfection.47 But a fixed essence that can only exist as a process of change will not be available for intellectual abstraction from any particular phase in the process. If a metaphor is allowed for clarification, our concrete existence amounts to performing in time all the acts of a script that is fixed once and for all, but since the play is about our own development, we are confined to the protagonist’s closed perspective and the plot will remain a secret to us until the very end. S·adrā does seem to think that on the primary level of merely existing, that is, when one is not attempting to understand explicitly what it is that exists, the identity of the process of existence is somehow given in the very act of existence.48 In the same context, he describes the extratemporal essence in causal terms, stating that the essence enters existence by directing it to the sort of goal proper to that essence and thereby determining the corresponding act of existence to be of the type it is.49 It thus seems that the existence of each fixed essence amounts to a restricted instantiation of the Neoplatonic circle of origination (mabda’) from and return (ma‘ād) to the Origin. As the single point of origin and return, the essence is present at each stage of the 45 46

47 48

Asfār I.1.7.19, III.76; I.1.7.22, III.83; I.1.7.24, III.95. This bears an intriguing resemblance to four-dimensionalist theories of identity in contemporary analytic metaphysics; cf. Gallois 2012. According to Rahman 1975, 109, ‘Allāma Sayyid Muh.ammad T.abāt.abā’ī (d. 1981) has presented an interpretation of S·adrā along these lines. Asfār I.1.7.25, III.105–107; IV.7.3, VIII.398–404; IV.7.6, VIII.449–452. Asfār I.1.7.22, III.86; I.1.7.25, III.107. 49 Asfār I.1.7.23, III.89–92; cf. IV.9.5, IX.143–144.

Identity in substantial change


process, but since each instant is a unique phase of the process that consists of all the determinations it has, an act of understanding cannot straightforwardly identify two phases of one process with each other. Rather, the identification must take place by means of some quiddity, which in an ideal case would be the very fixed essence actually governing the process one is considering.50 In the remainder of this subsection I will start by investigating some textual evidence for the claim that S·adrā was aware of the consequences his new theory of identity bears for the discussion of self-awareness. My aim here is to show that he deliberately attempted to import change into the very I each of us is aware of ourselves as being. I will then move on to consider the related question of whether we are transparent to ourselves in the manner most of S·adrā’s predecessors, Avicenna and Suhrawardī in particular, seem to have thought, or whether the new concept of selfhood rather introduces an amount of opacity to our self-awareness. Much of the positive account in the chapter of the psychological section of the Asfār in which S·adrā promises to explain the endurance of the human faculties, the related acts, and the human body in their constant transformation, consists of a series of quotes from the Theology of Aristotle. The thrust of the material is that the identity in change is due to an atemporal, unchanging and unified principle governing the change, quite in line with our brief account of the theory of substantial change. However, S·adrā concludes the chapter with an extended critique of Avicenna who, failing to grasp this crucial crypto-Plotinian point, was incapable of dealing with a number of psychological problems related to identity in change.51 One of these problems goes straight to the heart of our concern. S·adrā takes Avicenna to task by citing a question from the Mubāh.athāt:52 how can Avicenna say that a human soul becomes an intellect when an immaterial intellectual form actually occurs to it, for does this not entail that a soul which is not yet immaterial can nevertheless apprehend something that is immaterial, and would this not be a rather obvious violation of Avicenna’s 50


S·adrā clearly allows the possibility of subsuming two or more phases of a process under different quiddities, as shown by his remarks on accidental motion, that is, motion considered as not immediately concomitant to the essence, such as a particular change of place, a particular qualitative change or a particular amount of growth (see Asfār I.1.7.19, III.75). For instance, I can conceive of a sparrow’s flight from one tree to another as the movement of a bird or as the movement of some brownish thing. Both quiddities will enable me to attribute the two stages in the locomotion to a single entity in this restricted case. Asfār IV.9.5, IX.139–146. 52 Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt 377, 209 Badawī; V.302–303, 122 Bīdārfar.


The self reconsidered

own dearly held principles? Avicenna attempts to explain the problem away by appealing to a metaphorical sense of becoming, but S·adrā is, unsurprisingly, not convinced. According to him, the question points to a real problem in Avicenna’s theory of the human soul, which arises from Avicenna’s claim that the human being is immaterial and hence intellectual, in an immutable sense from the very beginning of its coming to be – a moment which S·adrā, presumably relying on a later source, locates at the fourth month of pregnancy when the foetus has reached a sufficient stage of development to enable the emanation of an immaterial entity capable of functioning as a soul for it.53 Avicenna did of course allow for two momentous events in the course of human existence, that is, the eventual cessation of the soul’s relationship to the body and the actualization of its intellectual potency through the acquisition of knowledge. However, in both cases the sense in which the human being exists as an immaterial and therefore intellectual thing, her self-awareness, remains immutable. Insofar as I am an I, I with the body am exactly the same as I without the body. Similarly, whether or not I have acquired knowledge, I am and remain I. For S·adrā, on the contrary, the soul is at first an imagination in act, an intellect in potency, and then, by means of the repetition of apprehensions and the extraction of intelligibles from sensibles and universals from particulars, it comes from the degrees of potential intellect to be at the degree of actual intellect; its self (dhātuhā) evolves and is transferred in this substantial transformation from an imaginative faculty to an intellectual faculty.54

S·adrā is emphatic: the soul literally becomes an intellect by changing in itself from an imaginative capacity to an intellectual one. This development is not a matter of intellectual objects merely replacing what was imagined, although that is involved as well. Because of the theory of cognitive unity, to which S·adrā refers elsewhere in the chapter,55 the subject and object of all cognition are fundamentally interdependent, and the ascent to a higher level of knowledge and existence concerns the subject and object alike. One may duly ask whether we are not reading too much into S·adrā’s choice of the ambiguous dhātuhā here. More precisely, is there anything that forces us to bring self-awareness into play, instead of interpreting the formulation as a vague reference to change in the essence or the substantial core of a human being? The present context alone provides no 53

Asfār IV.9.5, IX.150.


Asfār IV.9.5, IX.151.


Asfār IV.9.5, IX.148.

Identity in substantial change


definitive giveaway,56 but corroborative material can be found from related passages elsewhere in the Asfār. In the part of the Asfār devoted to the theory of substantial change S·adrā addresses the problem of identity in change by taking human existence as a case in point. This is instigated by an argument for dualism that relies on our self-awareness as evidence for an enduring immaterial self that, by functioning as a soul, underpins the identity in flux of its body. Some of them have said: ‘By means of this it is known that the soul is not temperament; for temperament is something flowing and renewed, and in what lies between any two extremes it has potentially infinite species. The sense of “potentially” is that no species is actually distinct from its neighbour, just as points and parts in a line segment are not actually distinct. Every human being is aware of himself (dhātihi) as one individual and unchanging thing, even if he is one in the sense of continuity (al-ittis.āl) to the end of life.’ I say: it is as if something of the scent of the self’s (al-dhāt) renewal in the human came upon this speaker when he said ‘even if he is one in the sense of continuity to the end of life’; for temporal continuity is not incompatible with transformation in that very continuum (al-muttas.il), you will know this when we resume the discussion.57

According to the argument S·adrā cites, the body is a temperamental constitution of elements, subject to ceaseless fluctuation of its constituents, and therefore requires an external principle of stability that keeps it from falling apart. This external principle is the soul, which can function as such a principle precisely because it is stable and unchanging in itself. What makes the argument interesting for us is the reference it makes to selfawareness. The argument explicitly assumes that human beings universally share an intuition of their respective dhawāt as enduring unchanged through time, and, in order to save the plausibility of this assumption, I believe we have to read dhāt here to mean ‘self’.58 If that is the case, then notwithstanding the argument’s anonymity, the insight it builds upon is


57 58

In Asfār IV.9.4, IX.155. S·adrā does criticize Avicenna for having incoherently held that the immaterial human substance is capable of really separating from the body and for having nevertheless denied substantial change. According to S·adrā, separation from the body is an instance of substantial change: what first existed as a soul comes to exist as an independent immaterial substance. He then characterizes the motion as istih.ālatun dhātīya, which could be translated as ‘transformation in terms of the self’, but equally well, indeed perhaps less awkwardly, as ‘essential transformation’. Thus, the passage does not help to resolve our dilemma. Cf. also Asfār IV.11.1, IX.265–266. Asfār I.1.7.24, III.95. My argument would be the same, mutatis mutandis, as in the discussion of Hasse’s interpretation of the flying man (see Chapter 2.2, 38–41). If we read dhāt as ‘essence’ here, we face the question of what sort of awareness of essence could plausibly be regarded as intuitively obvious by anyone.


The self reconsidered

of course familiar from Avicenna.59 However, the addition at the end, which qualifies that the self remains one throughout the change ‘in the sense of continuity’ (bi ma‘nā al-ittis.āl) departs from the common ground. Whatever the origin or the motive for the qualification, S·adrā finds it particularly apposite because he rejects any straightforward notion of stability in the human self. It is crucial to notice, though, that he does not deny the plausibility of our intuition of our selves remaining the same in spite of the change about and related to them – only this identity is a property that is due to the continuity of the process of change, not a relation between any two instants isolated from that continuity in intellectual analysis. This is a point S·adrā has laboured at some length earlier on in the chapter. Another example by means of which he attempts to clarify his thesis is qualitative change, such as the gradual darkening of a colour. Suppose you are sitting under a tree at dusk, observing the shadows grow increasingly thick by the minute. Although the shadow was visibly lighter a moment ago than it is at present, which enables you to distinguish the particular shade or species of its earlier black from that of the present one, you can still say that the two are instances of the same shadow or the same colour. This is legitimate because primarily, that is, prior to any intellectual distinction between the two shades, they were embedded in one process of change, which is potentially divisible by an intellect but actually one in itself.60 Our selves are similar to the thickening shadow: I can distinguish between two phases in the temporal development of my being, and even identify one with the other in subsequent reflection, but that is only because the development was one continuous whole to begin with. If I consider the two phases in isolation, I can never identify them with each other, because they are distinct individuals. I may of course subsume both under a single universal, but then I will lose grasp of their individuality – and it is precisely as an individual that I am aware of myself. The way out of the impasse is by locating the identity in the first-order self-awareness prior to the intellectual consideration. On the level of primitive self-awareness, I am primitively aware of myself as a continuous existence that remains a single process despite the thoroughgoing changes it is subject to. But ascending from this 59


A parallel case, though in a different formulation, can be found in Avicenna, Mubāh.athāt VI.402–403, 146–147 Bīdārfar (cf. 453, 227 Badawī), and Avicenna, al-Risāla al-adh.awīya IV, ˙ for Sadrā’s 127–128; cf. Chapter 4.1, 75–79. I have not been able to determine an immediate source · argument here; it may be a summary of the interchange between Rāzī and T.ūsī over a directive from the third namat. of the Ishārāt. For the passages in question, see Avicenna, Ishārāt, namat. 3, 120–121; Rāzī, Sharh. al-Ishārāt 125–127; and T.ūsī, Sharh. al-Ishārāt II.350–356. Asfār I.1.7.24, III.94–95.

Identity in substantial change


primitive awareness to explicit intellectual consideration of myself, I lose the awareness of identity, and the only substitute I can come up with is a universal quiddity that divests its instantiations of their individuality.61 That the substantial change of human beings concerns our very firstpersonality is also supported by means of proverbial evidence in a psychological chapter on the generation of individual human souls. Earlier in the chapter S·adrā has stated a preference for the view that, prior to their connections to bodies, human souls are fixed essences in God’s knowledge.62 In a corollary to this statement he tackles Suhrawardī’s refutation of pre-existence, particularly the critical claim that attributing the two states proper to a fixed essence and to a soul, respectively, to one and the same thing leads to asserting that the very reality of the thing is subject to transformation (inqilāb).63 Unsurprisingly, S·adrā says that as long as this transformation is understood in the framework of his doctrine of substantial change, there will be nothing to object to in it. Having brought forth a number of physical and cognitive processes as examples of perfectly legitimate transformations from one mode of existence to another,64 he concludes with the following chapter. What is reported from Pythagoras supports this claim. He said: ‘A spiritual self (dhātan) radiated knowledge (al-ma‘ārif) upon me, and I asked: Who are you? It said: I am your complete nature.’ Oh my beloved, if you were enabled to ascend in the layers of your existence, you would see numerous itnesses, different in existence. Each of them is a completion of your itness, not lacking anything of you, and each one of them is referred to by means of ‘I’. This is like in the famous proverb: ‘You are I, so who am I?’65

S·adrā’s explication is almost as enigmatic as Pythagoras’ dictum, but the context in which it is introduced warrants us to interpret it as a condensed expression of his novel theory of identity. If I were, per impossibile, able to ascend to later and therefore more perfect phases of my continuous existence, all the while remaining what I presently am, I would encounter them as distinct individual things or itnesses (huwīyāt) separate from me. Yet at the same time each of them would be me in as full and complete a way as I now am me, for once I reach these phases in the continuous development of my existence, I will be aware of myself and refer to myself by the 61 62 65

For other passages on the individual human identity as a continuity, see Asfār IV.10.8, IX.227–228; and IV.11.1, IX.267–268. Asfār IV.7.3, VIII.398–401. 63 Asfār IV.7.3, VIII.417–420. 64 Asfār IV.7.3, VIII.420–422. Asfār IV.7.3, VIII.422–423. The saying reported from Pythagoras is ascribed to Hermes by Suhrawardī in Mashāri‘ III.6.9.193, 464. The context is an argument for Platonic forms, and Suhrawardī spends no time at all on the implications of the quote for the concept of self-awareness.


The self reconsidered

first-personal indexical in exactly the same manner as now. The seeming contradiction can be dissolved by means of the distinction we have just introduced; the phases are distinct from each other in a second-order consideration, such as the depicted ascent, but in the continuity of primitive first-order self-awareness one remains aware of oneself as a single self throughout the development.66 The playful proverb at the end of the passage yields to a similar interpretation. If each of the numerous phases of my existence has a legitimate claim to provide the reference for the use of the first-personal indexical exclusive to me, we can ask which of the phases, if any, is really me in the most fundamental sense.67 The true answer, of course, is two-tiered. In the first-order level of continuous primitive selfawareness where there is no actual distinction between them, they are one and therefore all me in one and the same sense, whereas on the level of second-order consideration, none of them has a more valid claim to be me than any other. Occasionally, S·adrā applies the phenomenon of self-awareness as evidence for the way in which our identity is due to the single fixed essence that is both the origin and the point of return pursued in our existence. A particularly explicit case is the following version of the argument from the unity of experience that concludes an Avicennian classification of the soul’s faculties:68 This notion [that is, the soul’s unity] will be better revealed to you if you regard yourself (dhātika) separate from all else. You will then see it to understand and to apprehend universals and particulars, to estimate, to perceive, to hear, to see, to have desire, anger, love, joy, will, and other attributes which are innumerable and uncountable. You know that a form is either simple or composite and that matter too is either simple or composite; yet the composite existent is united in some manner of unity, for what has no unity has no existence. Thus, multiplicity is caused by unity, because it is the origin of multiplicity, its principle, model and goal.69

At first glance, the passage reads like a straightforward rephrasing of the Avicennian argument from unity: the self is the immutable subject of all the acts attributed to distinct faculties, which provides an important insight concerning the corresponding unity of the psychological entity known as 66 67 68 69

Cf. Asfār IV.8.2, IX.17; and IV.8.5, IX.72–73. Notice that the pivotal man anā is ambiguous and can be translated both as ‘who am I’ and as ‘who is I’. The bulk of Asfār IV.3.8, VIII.146–150, is a paraphrase of Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs I.5, 39–51 Rahman. Asfār IV.3.8, VIII.151.

Identity in substantial change


the soul. This impression dissolves, however, if we pay careful attention to the qualifications S·adrā appends to the argument. There is a unity underlying the multiplicity that appears in the self’s involvement in divergent acts, but instead of the stability of a Peripatetic substance it is a unity proper to a continuous process, which is made one by the origin and the goal whose unfolding in temporally extended existence it is. The acts, passions and other determinations of the self are one manifold because they all are constituents of one and the same existence, phases in a single process from the origin to the goal. In a closely related context, S·adrā characterizes this process of human development governed by a fixed identity in the origin and goal as our way of imitating God’s unity.70 God is mysteriously one by being identical to all of His semantically distinct names; the best I can do to approach this absolute unity is to be one by living through the entire course of the unbroken continuum of my existence. When the passage is set into its context, it becomes clear that S·adrā is using the Avicennian insight into the force of evidence provided by the self’s unity in experience to make a point that is in polar opposition to Avicenna. Instead of pointing towards a substantial core that endures through the fluctuation of attributes its existence consists in, the narrow selfhood upon which the argument from unity hinges is now used to provide us with a clue to the principle that governs our existence as a continuous whole. But the self we are experientially aware of within the continuity can only be identified with that principle if we realize that the fluctuation is an essential and inseparable part of it. The narrow concept of selfhood may help us to arrive at this realization, but only if we understand it in heuristical terms and resist the temptation straightforwardly to identify its abstract stability with the much more contentful principle. The I is there all along, yes, but only as a dimension of continuous development. This point is corroborated by another characterization of the self as a continuity, this time in an eschatological context. S·adrā inaugurates the section of the Asfār devoted to an argument for corporeal afterlife by recounting the principles required in the argument. The sixth of these principles states that the individual unity (al-wah.da al-shakhs.īya), or identity, varies according to the different modes of existence. In the case of temporally extended existence, the unity is ‘identical with its renewal and completion (‘aynu tajaddudihā wa taqaddihā)’, that is, with the continuity of the respective individual existence as˙ ˙a whole.71 According to this principle, the human soul or self is one by proceeding through the entire course 70

Asfār IV.3.7, VIII.136; and IV.3.9, VIII.154–155.


Asfār IV.11.1, IX.265.


The self reconsidered

of her existence at all of the levels due to it, from sense-perception through imagination to intellection.72 The closely related seventh principle, according to which the principle of identity in human existence is the immaterial soul, formulates the point with particular explicitness: the human itness in all these transformations and variations is one and identical to itself (wāh.idatun hiya hiya bi ‘aynihā), because it takes place in the manner of unitive gradual continuity (‘alā sabīli al-ittis.āli al-wah.dānīyi al-tadrījī). What is decisive is not the substantial individualities and existential definitions which take place by way of this substantial motion; on the contrary, what is decisive is that which persists and remains, and it is the soul, for it is the perfectional form in human being, which is the principle of his itness and self (huwīyatihi wa dhātihi).73

An individual human being is realized as a continuity of constant gradual transformation. As a result, we can grasp ourselves as one individual only by focusing on the principle of our development towards perfection, not by attempting to locate, by means of abstractive analysis, some sort of substantial core to our individuality or definitional limits to our existence. S·adrā clearly does not deny the possibility of such analysis, but he does reject its ability to get to the core of our individual identity. It is experientially available to us in our very first person, but only by living through all the gradual phases of our first-personal existence. Let us pause to recapitulate. The evidence we have considered suggests that S·adrā’s solution to the problems raised by his simultaneous subscription to both the Avicennian arguments that rely on the stability of selfawareness and the strong concept of thoroughgoing substantial change in all temporal entities is based on a novel concept of individual identity based on the continuous whole of temporally extended existence instead of an enduring substantial feature. As a result of this concept, the change through time that each of us is bound to undergo is now built in to our very selves. On the first-order level of primitive self-awareness, that is, on the level in which each of us simply is an I without pausing to consider what being an I minimally amounts to, each of us is aware of herself as one because she is living through the development by which her identity can only be realized. But on a second-order level of reflective attempts to grasp that first-order unity, that is, in maneouvres of thought (such as the flying man) designed to isolate the phenomenon of first-personality, we are bound to lose either our unity, by finding the first-order unity fragmented into distinct slices of first-personal existence determined by different sorts of content, or our 72

Asfār IV.11.1, IX.266.


Asfār IV.11.1, IX.267.

Identity in substantial change


individuality, by abstracting from those determinations and subsuming the distinct slices under a universal quiddity such as ‘I-ness’. The tacit criticism towards Avicenna and Suhrawardī would therefore be that they mistake a result of abstraction (the narrow concept of selfhood as pure I-ness) for a real individual (first-personality embedded in a process of constantly fluctuating determinations). That, however, is not all, for S·adrā’s insistence on the change built into the very self of every human being results in another important difference from his predecessors. Avicenna’s and Suhrawardī’s narrow concept of selfhood as pure I-ness divested of all accidental determinations has a feature common to the vast majority of dualist theories of self-awareness, namely, that the self is thoroughly transparent to itself. This is of course only proper for an immaterial, and thereby intellectual, entity: if there are no material obstacles preventing me from regarding myself, then I should be fully manifest to myself in all my immaterial glory. What could there possibly be about being me that I can be unaware of? But if I-ness is conceived as a dimension of change, I suddenly become decisively less apparent to myself. Indeed, if I pause to anticipate the future phases of my career of development, I soon realize that to a large extent this aspect of me is not only unclear but entirely unavailable to me. Thus, S·adrā’s concept of selfhood as subject to substantial change introduces a fundamental sort of opacity to our selves. If change is indeed crucial to our being, then there will be more in store of us in the future, something about us that we are not presently aware of, our immediate awareness of ourselves notwithstanding.74 As we have learned by now, the direction of substantial change is unilinear: like all creatures, we strive to reach ever higher levels of perfection proper to our type of existence. In general schematic terms, this amounts to first leaving behind the level of mere sense perception and ‘becoming actual imagination and what is actually imagined’, and at a still more developed stage, ‘becoming an intellect and what is understood in act’.75 If at the imaginative level I am in a strong sense one with the imagined content I am aware of, as S·adrā states, then the higher level of intellection must be hidden to me. Even if my existence as an imagination in act contains the 74 75

The rest of this chapter is adapted from the more extensive discussion in Kaukua 2014c. Asfār I., III.495. This is S·adrā’s standard account of cognitive substantial change, for other formulations, cf., e.g. Asfār IV.4.5, VIII.208–209; IV.4.12, VIII.239–240; IV.10.1, IX.167–168. S·adrā also describes human development in moral terms (e.g. Asfār IV.8.3, IX.41), by means of a distinction between relative activity and passivity (Asfār IV.11.24, IX.445), and by comparing it to various methods in the sciences (e.g. Asfār IV.10.4, IX.184–186; IV.11.9, IX.315–316).


The self reconsidered

potentiality to develop into an intellect in act, being potentially something is not the same as being that something in full act and awareness. But if a lower stage of development contains the higher in potency, can I not conceive the higher stage by conceiving the potency in myself? Those of us who have the experience of catching themselves in the act of daydreaming will certainly recognize the possibility of this sort of anticipation; perhaps with some added rigour we could be more accurate in our anticipations, and this could be a means of penetrating the opacity in ourselves, albeit not without a significant amount of mediation. S·adrā does not discuss this possibility as such, but he does make an interesting remark in a chapter dealing with the self-intellection due to all intellectual subjects. The instigation for the remark is, again, provided by Rāzī who argues against the Avicennian identification of God’s essence with His existence. Suppose we grant that God’s essence is His existence and then describe His existence as pure existence, divested of all determinations that would diminish it in one way or another. Since we can understand what existence is, and since we can also understand what those determinations are to which we apply the equally understandable logical operator of negation, the outcome is that we can understand God’s essence. But this amounts to saying that we can understand God as He understands Himself, which is about as outrageous a claim as one can make.76 In his answer, S·adrā is unwilling to reject any of the premises as such. Instead, he opts to qualify our understanding of existence by distinguishing between existence and the concept of existence. Existence in reality allows an infinite variation of degrees of intensity and weakness, and the concept of existence can be common to all instantiations of existence in spite of their differences in intensity only by abstracting from those differences. Thus, understanding a particular existence, in this sense God’s, as an instantiation of the concept of existence is not the same as being that particular existence.77 In other words, although a less intense existence can conceive of a more intense existence, it does not thereby know what it is like to exist more intensely. Moreover, given that the sort of existence proper both to intellectually capable human beings and the infinitely capable Creator is cognitive, we can also rephrase S·adrā’s point by stating that knowing God as He knows Himself, and not as we now do by means of the concept of existence, would amount to existing at His level, or existing as Him.

76 77

Asfār I., III.488. S·adrā seems to be paraphrasing from Rāzī, Mabāh.ith I.1.5, I.124. Asfār I., III.488.

Identity in substantial change


Although the discussion concerns the infinite difference in degree between us and the Creator, there seems to be no reason not to believe that the statement holds also of the finite difference between a less and a more developed phase of our own existence. We cannot know what we have the potency to become before we actually are that; full awareness of the innate goal of development can only be had upon arrival at the goal. In the context of interpreting the topic of the ‘straight path’ (al-s.irāt. al-mustaqīm) as addressing the ethical implications of the human return to God, S·adrā frames the point in a rather charming symbol: the journeyer towards God – I mean the soul – travels in itself (fī dhātihā), and passes through sojourns and stations that occur in itself through itself (fī dhātihā bi dhātihā). Thus, at every step it lays its foot upon its head, or rather its head upon its foot, and this is something astonishing; yet it is not astonishing upon verification and knowledge (al-‘irfān).78

Earlier in the chapter, S·adrā has stated that the straight path is the soul itself, suggesting that the path is only paved when it is first trodden upon.79 The idea is that the soul’s choices and acts determine its lot in the afterlife; treading on the path of its self, as straight or crooked as it turns out to be, it generates itself as an entity with the corresponding character traits. Our passage then connects this eschatological theme to the idea of development in the most intimate dimension of self-awareness. The earlier phases of the soul’s self-aware existence provide the basis for the later ones; one can only develop by surpassing one’s present self, or, in terms of the simile, by using one’s head as a stepping stone upon which one can step to reach higher. Yet at the same time, the later phase is later precisely because it ascends the earlier one. When we consider the fact that proper human development takes place as an increase in knowledge – as an ascent from the lower modes of perception and imagination towards the summit of intellection – we realize that one really only progresses by standing as erect as a human being should, that is, by placing one’s head, which after Avicenna is the uncontested seat of the highest body-related cognitive faculties, in its proper place above one’s feet. If we connect this metaphorical description of the properly human substantial change to S·adrā’s general claim that the higher stages in the substantial development of any act of existence somehow include the lower or preceding ones,80 it begins to seem that in the human case this inclusion amounts to a superior cognitive perspective to oneself. In a process whose 78

Asfār IV.11.19, IX.403.


Asfār IV.11.19, IX.394–396, 402.


Cf., e.g., Asfār I.1.7.25, III.106.


The self reconsidered

logic is not altogether unlike that of the Hegelian Aufhebung, abstracted from the grand historical story, the later self (a head above feet) is aware of itself as the present state of a developmental process, and thereby grasps the earlier phases as so many steps that have led it to the present. As patronizing as it may be, one will always know better when one comes of age intellectually, as one progresses from a predominantly perceptual subject to one capable of imagination, and ultimately to a fully mature intellect. In this sense, I can legitimately say that I am the same person as I was ten days, ten months or even ten years ago, in spite of all the changes I have been subject to, for I would not be my present self were it not for those earlier stages in the development, which in this sense belong to myself. But this inclusion in awareness of course implies a corresponding exclusion from the perspective of the earlier phases of self-aware existence. The foot that is about to step higher is not aware of the superior perspective it will thereby gain for the head, and similarly, the I a decade ago can only be aware of the present I by developing to the level of existence corresponding to it – that is, by becoming it. The inaccessibility of future development in self-awareness is not the only source of opacity in the S·adrian self, for the inclusion of the past in the present also comes in degrees of intensity of awareness. As most of us know all too well, we do not remember our entire personal histories. On the other hand, although I can have a recollection of myself as I was a decade or two ago, I may already have lost touch with myself ten minutes into the past. Moreover, there are many things I now know that I know I must have learned in the past, although I have no recollection whatsoever of ever having learned them. Were it not for the blatant implausibility that a concept like ‘my wife’s favourite licorice’ could be hard-wired into my psychological make-up, it might just as well be a priori for my present self. S·adrā discusses phenomena like these in terms of habituation which, given his theory of substantial development, does not concern merely the accidental character traits of one’s soul but one’s very self.81 Habituation is addressed especially in the eschatological part of the Asfār and is consistently approached by means of two Qur’ānic topoi, that of the opening of the book of the soul on the final day,82 and that of the sinners’ 81 82

Cf. Asfār IV.7.1, VIII.382–383; IV.10.4, IX.184; IV.11.4, IX.303–304; IV.11.9, IX.315; IV.11.220, IX.404–405; IV.11.33, IX.537–538. Different types of habituation are described in IV.9.2, IX.115–122. Cf., e.g., Q 7:187; 17:13–14, 71; 18:49; 50:22; 69:19–20, 25–26; 81:10; 84:10–12. For a concise account, see Asfār IV.11.20, IX.404–412. The topos figures constantly also in the brief and derivative Iksīr al-‘ārifīn (see, e.g., I.5, 9, 12–13; II.5, 22; II.7–8, 25–27; IV.3, 67–68). For an extended discussion, see Jambet 2008, 150–203.

Identity in substantial change


appearance in the afterlife in a variety of animal forms.83 On the final day, each soul is read its proper judgment from a book, which the soul itself constitutes and which contains a complete account of all its acts that are worthy of praise or blame. Prior to the opening of the book, the soul was oblivious to these acts despite the fact that it had been their agent and that the acts had become part of the soul itself as its habitudes. This suggests that the previous phases of an individual human existence need not be presently given as explicit cognitive objects. Instead, as habituations to perceive, estimate and react to the world, they often determine the present in all kinds of ways one is not aware of, and it is precisely such hidden aspects of one’s self that will be painfully clear to read on the final day. By the same token, the habituations can be made apparent in the afterlife when their bearers are transformed to exist in ‘angelic, satanic, animal or bestial forms’ that are depictive of their respective habituated states, henceforth tortuously explicit for all to see.84 The relevance of this eschatological discussion from the point of view of our topic can be assessed by considering two questions. First, does S·adrā explicitly state that our character traits, or at least some of them, are below the threshold of awareness? Second, does he identify the unaware traits with the self? The answer to the first question seems to be affirmative, not only on systematic grounds (what opening or revelation would there be unless the revealed traits were somehow hidden to begin with?) but also in light of textual evidence. Consider as an example the following variation on the opening of the soul’s book: We also say that the intoxication of nature and the soul’s stupor in this abode – due to its preoccupation with the deeds of the body – prevent it from apprehending the harms and pains of the soul that occur to it and that are acquired from among the results of its deeds and the concomitants of its destructive character traits (akhlāqihā) and habits (malakātihā), by a true apprehension which is not spoiled by what the senses convey to it and what they are engaged in, forgetting and ignoring. Thus, when the veil is lifted from the human by death and the cover is removed, on that day his sight falls upon the consequences of his acts and the results of his deeds, so that they then end up – if he is mean in character traits, evil in deeds and destructive in beliefs – in strong pain and great disaster, as in His saying, 83 84

Cf., e.g., Q 5:60 (apes and pigs) and 7:166 (apes). S·adrā also cites a number of ahādīth from the Prophet and the imams. Cf. the extended discussion in Asfār IV.8.2, IX.12–32. Asfār IV.8.2, IX.29–30; cf. IV.8.3, IX.43–44; IV.10.4, IX.184 (where S·adrā also discusses habituation in terms of traces and blemishes on the mirror of the soul); IV.11.20, IX.404–405, 407–408; and IV.11.26, IX.464.


The self reconsidered praised be He: therefore We have now removed your covering, so your sight today is piercing.85

Immersed in perception and its various investments in the perceived world, the human soul is incapable of directing its attention to the habituating and accustoming consequences of its acts in and relations to the world. As a consequence, it lacks a true grasp of this opaque aspect of itself and is unaware of its habituations and character traits as such, apprehending instead their traces in its present objects of experience.86 The meaning of the opening of the soul’s book, ‘when the veil is lifted . . . and the cover . . . removed’, is precisely that the human being is forced to face the character traits by which she has been determined all along but which have thitherto escaped her explicit awareness. The pleasure or pain she is due in the afterlife consists precisely in her immediate awareness of herself down to the murkiest recesses of her being.87 This distinction between the opacity and transparency of the human self is particularly prominent in Asfār IV.11.20, the eschatological chapter dedicated to explaining the symbol of the opening of the soul’s book. It also contains formulations that clearly indicate S·adrā’s sustained insistence on the unity of the self and its characteristics. Having stated that all morally relevant acts, even ‘an atom’s weight of good or evil’ that a person has performed in this world are inscribed in her soul, S·adrā states: When the resurrection takes place and the time comes for his sight to fall upon the face of his self (dhātihi), due to his emptiness of the preoccupations of this mundane life and what the senses have brought him, and to turn to the page of his interior and the tablet of his conscience (ilā .safh.ati bāt.inihi wa lawh.i damīrihi), which is the meaning of His saying, praised be He: when the ˙ spread out, then he who is heedless of the states of his soul and the pages are account of his vices and virtues will say at the unveiling of his cover, presence of his self (h.udūri dhātihi), and reading of the page of his book: what is in this ˙ book leaves neither the minute nor the great unaccounted, and they will find present what they have done, your Lord does no injustice to anyone, on the day on which every soul finds present what good it has done and what vicious it has done, wishing that there were a great distance between it and itself.88

In the very sentence that emphasizes the soul’s lack of awareness of its own characteristics, S·adrā states that they are recognized by turning the gaze of awareness upon oneself. There are thus aspects of the self that can become 85 86 88

Asfār IV.8.3, IX.48–49; S·adrā quotes Q 50:22. See also Asfār IV.10.2, IX.169–170; and IV.10.3, IX.177–182. 87 Asfār IV.11.33, IX.539. Asfār IV.11.20, IX.408; S·adrā quotes Q 81:10, 18:49 and 3:30, respectively.

Identity in substantial change


present to the self, but this is possible only because they were not such to begin with. The wish in Q 3:30 at the end is thus counterfactual in a very radical sense, for there can hardly be a distance, great or small, between the self and its characteristics if they are one with each other. That S·adrā intends his eschatology to be coherent with his theory of cognitive unity is corroborated by a later passage from the same chapter: What gardens, trees, rivers and so forth there are in the other [world] are spirits, which are nothing other than (hiya bi ‘aynihā) suspended forms that subsist by themselves (bi dhātihā) and whose life is identical with their essence (nafsu dhātihā), and every human soul, together with what houris, castles, trees and rivers are attached to it, the whole of them exists through one existence and lives through one life, the whole with its individual unity being manifold in form. When the human has departed from the world and has divested of the garb of this nethermost, and this cover is removed from his sight, his apprehensive faculty is a power, his knowledge hidden, and what is hidden of him is manifest, so that he comes to see the consequences of his deeds and thoughts, to behold the traces of his movements and acts, reading the scroll of his deeds and the tablet of his book, his virtues and vices, as He said, praised be He: and upon every human being we have forced his bird upon his neck, and we shall bring forth for him on the day of resurrection a book he shall find wide open. Read your book, your soul suffices you today as an accountant.89

A close reading of the passage will reveal virtually all the peculiarities of S·adrā’s conception of human selfhood in operation. The unity of the subject and object of knowledge provides the basis for identifying the soul with its particular lot in the hereafter; the soul does not merely have ‘what houris, castles, trees and rivers are attached to it’, rather the whole of the soul and its characteristics ‘exists through one existence’ as an ‘individual unity . . . manifold in form’. On the other hand, the idea of substantial change in the human self, the very core of the human being, though perhaps less emphasized, seems nevertheless to be required in order to account for the accumulation of the determinations that are the individual’s afterlife. S·adrā’s systematic interpretation of the Qur’ānic theme of a superior cognitive perspective reached at the apex of one’s development in death, when one fully realizes not only what one was on the way to becoming but also what the road to that apex was really all about, relies on the idea that later and higher developmental stages contain the earlier and lower, an idea which is explicable only in the framework of the theory of substantial change. 89

Asfār IV.11.20, IX.411; S·adrā quotes Q 17:13–14. Cf. IV.11.21, IX.413–414; IV.11.26, IX.469; IV.11.27, IX.480–481.


The self reconsidered

A later formulation makes this point even more explicit by undoing the strict difference between our present life and that post-mortem: ‘Know . . . that the garden, to which he who is of its people will arrive, is visible to you today with respect to its substrate (min h.aythu mah.allihā), not with respect to its form, and you dwell in it in the state you are in, yet you do not know that you are in it (wa anta tutaqallibu fīhā ‘alā al-h.āli al-latī anta ‘alayhā wa lā ta‘alimu annaka fīhā).’90 In our present state we already are living the afterlife in the sense that we bear in us the potency out of which the superior cognitive perspective evolves, or to put it another way, it is our present self that we come to regard in the afterlife. It will be different from the way it is now in the sense that it will then be informed by the superior perspective revealed in death, but it will also be the same in the sense that participation in the same act of existence will enable the later self to recognize itself in and identify with the earlier. The counterpart of this idea is, however, that there is something in the very core of me that I presently lack awareness of despite my constant awareness of myself. Although he treads faithfully along the path opened by Avicenna’s and Suhrawardī’s arguments related to self-awareness, its primitiveness, and its irreducibility to any other type of cognition, S·adrā demotes the phenomenon from the pivotal role it once had, particularly in Suhrawardī who placed the phenomenon at the foundation of his revisionist epistemology and metaphysics. As a result, his discussion of self-awareness is somewhat less systematic, and we have been forced to gather together the passages under investigation from a number of different contexts of discussion. This notwithstanding, I hope to have shown that S·adrā’s treatment of selfawareness is not only systematic but also highly original. This is due to his sustained attempt to fit the phenomenon into the general framework established by the two theories that, in addition to the foundationality of existence (as.āla al-wujūd), are his true labours of love. The theory of cognitive unity, as we have seen, is problematic for the narrow concept of selfhood as pure first-personality or I-ness. If the subject and the object of knowledge are inseparably one in an act of cognition, it seems unwarranted to postulate that the I we can separate from the it in analysis could exist as such, isolated and alone, in reality. As we have seen, this is precisely the conclusion S·adrā draws: selfhood as pure firstpersonality is a mere concept, whereas in reality the I is always determined by its acts, perceptions, desires and so forth. This does not mean that the 90

Asfār IV.11.26, IX.468.

Identity in substantial change


concept is purely fictional, for it does refer to a structural feature in all our acts and experiences: all that we do we do as first-personal agents, and all that we are aware of we are aware of in the first person. What he does reject, however, is the postulation of a real entity that corresponds exclusively to our first-personal reference. On the other hand, S·adrā’s theory of substantial change further undermines the Avicennian identification between the self and the stable substantial core of the human being. If everything in us is subject to development, then there seems to be no reason to assume that I remain the same throughout my existence. Earlier on, we saw Suhrawardī tentatively introduce the idea that self-awareness comes in degrees, but it is in the framework of S·adrā’s theory of substantial change that the gradation of selfawareness blooms in full. As we develop in the manner proper to human beings from perceiving entities to ones capable of imagination, and ultimately towards increasingly complete subjects of intellection, we thereby acquire more perfect modes of being in the first person. This, however, requires S·adrā to forge a new explanation for the phenomenologically plausible view that we have a first-personal identity that is capable of some stability in the constant fluctuation of its properties. And as we have seen, S·adrā no longer ascribes our identity to a stable substantial core to our being but conceives of it as a feature that belongs and is due to our existence as a continuous whole. A corollary of this novel concept of identity is that we are no longer as transparent to ourselves as Avicenna and Suhrawardī held; there are determining features in us that we are not fully aware of, and instead of merely accidental appendices, these are constitutive to our very selves. I do not want to claim that S·adrā was intent on developing anything like a theory of the unconscious, for it seems clear that the discussion of the self’s opacity is indeed a corollary of other, more important concerns. Yet the scattered but systematic remarks he makes seem almost epochal from the point of view of our present focus.


Who is the I?

Much of the preceding hinges on the reconstruction of shu‘ūr bi al-dhāt as pure first-personality, or the sort of existence proper to an I abstracted from all other considerations. Such a result may appear disappointingly meagre and short of explanatory force, for surely the natural thing for any philosophically oriented mind is to ask, first, how first-personality is brought about, and second, what being an I consists in. I believe, however, that when the plausibility of the reconstruction is tested in the wider context of post-Avicennian Islamic philosophy, we find that the continuous discussion not only corroborates the legitimacy of the reconstruction but also alleviates the initial disappointment by providing some flesh over its bare bones. It is true that I-ness remains a primitive fact throughout our period; it is not explained by recourse to any more foundational type of existence, or anything more evident or better known, either in itself or to us. All our experience is simply taken to be given to us in the first person, as is proper to a certain class of beings, namely immaterial intellects. From the point of view of a contemporary physicalist, this may seem a strikingly unreflected, dogmatic and unphilosophical account. But if we adopt a broader and more charitable stance, we can read Avicenna as indeed presenting a kind of answer, for when he states that self-awareness is the existence of an intellectual substance, he assigns the phenomenon its proper place in the available categories of being. His answer is arguably unnuanced, but in essence it is of the same form as that of the contemporary physicalist whose reductionism he would sternly reject; the minimal account just is the most thorough explanation of self-awareness available in the framework of his metaphysics. This is highlighted by Suhrawardī’s antipodal strategy in which self-awareness is taken to be foundational to all explanation, something that cannot be explained but rather provides the Archimedean point for the knowledge and explanation of all other things. 228

Conclusion: Who is the I?


But from the historian’s point of view, the second question concerning the constitution of I-ness is perhaps the more interesting one, and correspondingly, the failure to perceive its relevance a clear sign of the philosophical barrenness of a context of discussion. Again, it is true that Avicenna held the human substance at its barest, in the undeveloped state of mere first perfection, to be nothing but a first-personal perspective to a variety of its potential determinations, that is, to the various acts human beings are capable of, or to the perceptions, volitions and cognitions they have the means to acquire. Considered in isolation, this perspective is not constituted by anything, and thus cannot be described or defined by means of anything more elementary. This, however, does not mean that Avicenna considered such pure first-personality to be the whole story about our possibilities to exist in the first person. Although he did not present a sustained analysis, the remarks he makes on self-reflection and the individuation of human beings, for instance, suggest that his account of the concrete first-personality instantiated in persons like you and me would have been considerably more complex and inclusive of the various accidental determinations we in fact have. The I-ness he focuses on is an abstraction, a minimal condition we must fulfil in order to exist in the first place, and it is only this aspect of us that he holds to be unanalysable. From this point of view, S·adrā’s rejection of the self’s separability from its determinations, as well as his alternative conception of first-personality as a structural constituent of the complex whole of experience with its variety of objective content and epistemic or conative attitudes, is not so much a contrary theory of the self as a refusal to admit the self-sufficient existence of the transcendental conditions of our empirical existence – if a characterization in foreign terms is pardoned. For S·adrā, although we are always minimally aware of ourselves in the sense of being in the first person, there are no minimal selves. All that has led me to the present state, as well as all that is to become of me, is essential to me and should therefore be featured in a complete account, indeed the only absolutely valid (even if humanly unattainable) account, of my particular self. Notwithstanding the variety of views with regard to the constitution of the self, it remains the case that the self of all Islamic philosophers is something each of us simply has to accept as given. In a sense, I am what I am irrespective of my own choice and effort. Nothing like the malleable self which is a product of social construction, various contingent economic, historical and libidinal factors, or even the individual’s reflective efforts to guide her own existence, and which becomes increasingly to the fore in early modern European thought, seems to emerge in the Islamic context. As I


Conclusion: Who is the I?

hope the foregoing clearly indicates, this is not simply because thinkers in classical Arabic lacked the conceptual means to arrive at such a radically open concept of the self. S·adrā’s new concept of individual identity is considerably detached from the strong species-specific determination that arguably still governs the intuitions of Avicenna and Suhrawardī, and although it was based on the idea of a fixed essence known to God, the explication of which the existence of an individual human self is and which governs the course of the self’s development in a strongly deterministic fashion, there seems to be no conceptual necessity why further analysis could not have separated the idea of a constructible self from that particular doctrinal fixture. Yet it remains a fact that this final move was never made, and a natural question to ask is why that is the case. Questions of this sort bring us to the limits of the explanatory power of a history of philosophy narrowly conceived. To even attempt an answer, one should adopt Charles Taylor’s seminal method of procedure and take into account as much as possible of the complex set of extraphilosophical historical factors, stemming from and related to the spheres of religious and ethical intuitions, natural science, economy, urban and rural planning, politics, and so on and so forth. I will be the first to confess that such an investigation is beyond my capacity, knowledge and inclination. However, I would also like to add that it may be hasty, and slightly too easy for comfort, to jump to the conclusion that the discussion on self-awareness provides us with another example of the stifling influence of religion, and in particular of the stagnation of Islamic intellectual life after the classical and golden era of science and philosophy. Regardless of our ethical convictions, it is not clear whether the liberal individualistic intuition of the construability of the self stands on a solid theoretical ground. Perhaps the openness of the self to our own efforts of construction is merely an illusion, albeit an arguably beneficial one, and perhaps we really are determined down to the core of our being. Perhaps the self, which I have chosen to identify with and which therefore provides me with a narrative bridge from my present person to those in my past, is a mere conceptual fiction that fails to reproduce the true connections that are exclusively due to the continuous stream of existence, not to any enduring characteristics, regardless of how central to my person I take them to be. Perhaps the me that I now reflectively grasp is connected to the me ten years, ten days or even ten minutes ago in ways my grasp fails to encompass; and perhaps, regardless of the decisions I now believe I am making, that stream of existence will lead to a me ten minutes, days or years later that is connected to the present in all sorts of ways that will remain obscure to me – until the Final Day, in any case. Perhaps you, aware of

Conclusion: Who is the I?


yourself reading this line, really are but a phase in a continuity the logic of whose inevitable development is simply inaccessible to you. From this point of view, S·adrā’s conception of the self and its true identity suddenly appears decidedly less dated. On the contrary, the trajectory of the Islamic discussion on the self seems to have led us to a set of questions that remain a matter of acute debate in the philosophy of mind both westwards and eastwards from the Islamicate world. Prominent philosophers of mind with a strong physicalistic bent have recently found an interesting piece of shared ground with Buddhist contesters of the self’s reality, and the question of whether there is such a thing as the self is arguably more in vogue than ever before, at least in the history of the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Interestingly, it seems that in this debate between the challengers and the defenders of the self,1 S·adrā would represent a middle position that is opened by means of a further question. Supposing that there is some reality to the self, do I have any reason to believe that my concept of my self is capable of matching that reality? S·adrā’s radical doubt of the endurance of any of the momentary selves that we can delineate in reflective investigation should not be straightforwardly identified as a denial of the self, for he clearly recognizes that there is a principle of unity operative in our conscious experience, which we can legitimately characterize as a self. Our stream of consciousness is not a haphazard series of abrupt cuts between unrelated moments, but a continuity with an internal logic of development that corresponds to a unity of origin and purpose. However, that unity is not due to any principle that endures immune to change within the stream of conscious experience; rather, the principle is embodied in the stream as a whole. As a consequence, our self as this principle of unity is not available to our consideration from any single moment of the stream. Trapped within the constant change of the stream, we are limited to a participant’s point of view. Thus, for S·adrā the self is unreal if we mean by it some stable thing corresponding to the concept that I form through a process of conceptual abstraction from the continuous stream of self-aware experience, but this is of no consequence for the self as the principle of unity embodied in the continuity as a whole. Neither a no-self doctrine like that of the Buddhist philosophers and the contemporary deniers of the self, nor its opposite according to which the self is a transcendental principle that endures experiential change and can be accurately grasped from within the empirical stream of consciousness that it structures, we should perhaps characterize S·adrā’s view as revolving on the 1

Summarized with exemplary conciseness in Zahavi 2011.


Conclusion: Who is the I?

idea of a ‘super-self’ underlying all the efforts, thoughts and characteristics that I consider as my own. I am a product, or a creature, brought about in the unfolding of that greater self, and although I have my momentary share of its light, I should eventually realize my own limits and withdraw to the shadows from obscuring the respective share of all the other I’s that remain to be generated. Finally, perhaps this distinction between an unreal and an eminently real self provides us with a vantage point from which to reassess the problematic relation between the rational and philosophical on the one hand, and the mystical and religious on the other, in S·adrā and later Islamic philosophy at large. Perhaps S·adrā’s emphatic exhortation to follow the sharī‘a strictly and to engage in supererogatory acts of abstinence and devotion, an undeniable feature of his writing that is sometimes supposed to represent a mystical or irrational aspect of his thought and to somehow transcend his efforts in theoretical reasoning, can be understood as referring to a means of identifying with the greater self. According to this view, these practices, which continue to be venerated by a great many Muslims, are reappropriated as a method of divesting oneself of erroneous limited conceptions and beliefs regarding an enduring self, and of connecting instead more immediately to the basis and origin of one’s experience. If that is the case, it is important to be clear about the question of in what sense exactly these aspects of S·adrā’s writing suggest a step beyond philosophy and rational thought. This is not because they represent a superior type of thinking or knowledge, for the supreme theoretical account of the world of God’s creation remains to be attained through a rigorous process of learning and thought governed by the best principles of philosophy. Rather, they transcend philosophy because they pertain to being a self, whereas philosophical theorizing remains at the level of what it is to be one. This, however, should not blind us to the fact that it is in works of philosophy that we find the questions, and answers, of what the individual self is and why she finds herself in the situation that calls for the prescribed remedy.


Arabic terminology related to self-awareness

The present study as a whole should stand as an argument for the claim that the Arabic philosophers had at their disposal sufficient terminological means for an analytic discussion of self-awareness. This appendix is therefore not intended as a further substantiation of this claim, but is rather meant simply to gather together the central terms for quick reference. Dhāt. The Arabic term our authors most often use to refer to the self is the ambiguous dhāt (pl. dhawāt) which, in addition to its colloquial reflexive meaning (for instance in phrases like al-rajul bi dhātihi, ‘the man himself’), functions in philosophy as a technical term denoting ‘essence’.1 This it does, moreover, in a most general sense, referring simply to the principle that makes a thing the sort of thing it is, and not specifying whether we are dealing with essence as an object of knowledge (māhīya, or ‘quiddity’), as existing in an active formal principle in matter (t.abī‘a, ‘nature’, or .sūra, ‘form’), or from the point of view of its actualization in reality (h.aqīqa, ‘reality’, or annīya, ‘thatness’).2 Thus, in this sense too, dhāt could legitimately, if somewhat imprecisely be rendered as ‘(the thing) itself’ when contrasted with the accidental attributes it can lose without turning into a different kind of thing. However, in the present study I have adopted a much more strict translation of dhāt as ‘self’ in roughly the sense in which the term is used in contemporary discussions of self-awareness or selfconsciousness. I defend this translation in some detail in Chapter 2, but my final argument for its legitimacy in most appearances of the term in the texts discussed relies on the massed evidence of those very appearances – it simply makes eminently good sense to interpret these passages as dealing with what we would now call a self. Be that as it may, I have made a point of rigorously providing the Arabic equivalents of all relevant phrases for the critical reader’s consideration. 1

Cf. Afnan 1964, 101; Rahman 1991.


Goichon 1938, 134–137.



Appendix: Arabic terminology

Nafs. Another ambiguous term often used in the reflexive sense of ‘self’ is nafs (pl. nufūs, or anfus), for example in phrases like al-rajul bi nafsihi, ‘the man himself’. This term is potentially even more problematic than dhāt because it was adopted as the standard translation of the Greek word psychē, meaning ‘soul’, which is prone to generate confusion in psychological texts dealing with self-awareness. As a frequently occurring Qur’ānic term, it was also common in popular ethical and religious texts; for instance, there are a number of different Sufi classifications of the various types of nafs, a matter which in no way alleviates the translator’s arbitration between ‘soul’ and ‘self’. In the present study, in order to try and beg as few questions as possible, I have striven to translate nafs consistently as ‘soul’ whenever the context allows, and opt for some variation of ‘self’ only in those cases in which ‘soul’ seems obviously ill-fitting. Again, in the latter cases I always provide the Arabic for the critical reader’s evaluation. Anā. The first person indexical pronoun anā is of obvious relevance to our topic. The pronoun itself presents no particular difficulties for translation, but difficult questions of interpretation do arise concerning the level of abstraction at which it is used. Most importantly, is the pronoun used, in a quasi-technical manner, in a generalized description of self-awareness (‘what am I?’ in the sense of ‘what is the I?’) or does it refer in a more casual way to the subject of writing?3 Although Arabic does not standardly demand the explicit utterance of indexical pronouns, as a result of which their mere appearance often carries a certain air of emphasis, the exact sense in which anā is used in each of the passages under consideration will have to be determined by a close analysis of the context. This, however, is not the case about the abstract term anā’īya (‘I-ness’), which was introduced by Suhrawardī and which, as far as I have been able to determine, the philosophers use exclusively in discussions on self-awareness.4 ‘Ayn. A less frequently occurring term is ‘ayn, which is usually embedded in phrases like bi ‘aynihi (‘by himself’ or ‘he himself’) or in idioms designed to identify one thing with another such as huwa ‘aynu al-nafs (‘he is [identical with] the soul’), or employed in distinctions between what exists concretely in extramental reality (‘aynī or fī al-‘ayn) and what exists in the mind (dhihnī or fī al-dhihn).5 This term seems not to have been used technically in the philosophical discussion of self-awareness, but it does occur in looser turns of phrase, which merits its brief consideration here. 3 4

A case in point is the extended context of Avicenna, Shifā’: Fī al-nafs V.7, discussed in Chapter 4.1, 66–71. For Sufi uses of the term, however, see Afnan 1964, 93–94. 5 Afnan 1964, 101–102.

Appendix: Arabic terminology


Annīya, huwīya. Two other expressions, which are tangentially related to self-awareness, are the technical terms annīya (‘thatness’) and huwīya (‘itness’), both of which refer to the existence of an individual thing considered as an individual, that is, to the fact that (an or anna) the thing is there or to its being an individual object that can be ostensively referred to as an it (huwa), in distinction from the question of what the thing is, an answer to which would require subsuming it under some universal concept.6 However, when the terms were forged in the first wave of the translations of Greek philosophical works, they were used rather loosely as correlates of clearly distinct concepts in the original, and, as a consequence of this, their precise sense in subsequent philosophical texts is a constant problem of interpretation. For example, in Ust.āth’s translation of the Metaphysics, in Ibn Nā‘ima al-H · imsī’s (d. early ninth century CE) rendering of the pseudo-Aristotelian Theology, and in the crypto-Proclean Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d, both terms were relied on to translate to on ˙ and˙ to einai, as a result of which they can be used in the sense of ‘being’ (in the senses of both verbal noun and agent). Sometimes annīya is even used to render to ti ēn einai, Aristotle’s term for ‘essence’, which in the Metaphysics is used synonymously with ousia.7 Finally, the modern Arabic use of huwīya in the sense of ‘identity’ already figures in al-H · imsī’s Theology, where the term occasionally translates the Greek tautotēs, but this seems to be a somewhat anomalous case; for instance, Ust.āth’s Metaphysics never uses huwīya for tautotēs, opting instead for the closely related huwa huwa. This staggering variety of meanings is to some extent held together by the fact that annīya and huwīya focus on the individual existence of their reference. Thus, the terms naturally figure in discussions on self-awareness – the entire phenomenon does, after all, hinge on a cognitive relation of an individual thing to itself – but the Arabic philosophers’ conceptual grasp of the phenomenon is not primarily dependent on these terms. In most cases we can simply translate ‘thatness’ or ‘itness’ without needing to specify in which precise meaning the terms are used.8 Sha‘ara, shu‘ūr. The cognitive aspect of self-awareness (the ‘awareness’) is most often denoted by the verb sha‘ara and the corresponding verbal noun shu‘ūr, which I have standardly translated as ‘to be aware’ and ‘awareness’, respectively. They figure especially frequently in combination 6 7 8

Goichon 1938, 1991; d’Alverny 1959; Afnan 1964, 94–97; and van den Bergh 1991. Cf. Aristotle’s distinction between to hoti and to ti estin in An. post. II.1, 89b23–25. D’Alverny 1959, 72–74; Goichon 1991; van den Bergh 1991. Exceptions to this rule are Avicenna’s controversial use of annīya in the flying man (see Chapter 2.2, 38–41), and Suhrawardī’s use of huwa and huwīya as contraries of anā and anā’īya (see Chapter 5.1, 111–113).


Appendix: Arabic terminology

with dhāt; indeed, although not explicitly defined as such, shu‘ūr bi al-dhāt emerges from the texts as a quasi-technical term that very naturally translates as a compound such as ‘self-awareness’. The choice of this particular term seems to be motivated by its apparent connotation of the phenomenal, experienced or felt aspects of different types of cognition.9 Adraka, idrāk. Another cognitive term often used in discussions of selfawareness is the fourth form verb adraka and its cognate noun idrāk. This pair of terms commonly functions as a generic expression for all types of cognition, and I have attempted to capture this sense of generality and vagueness by translating them consistently as ‘to apprehend’ and ‘apprehension’. Other cognitive terms. Many of the most common cognitive terms figure occasionally in the philosophical discussion of self-awareness. In order of increasing specificity, the three most important of these are the verbs ‘arafa, ‘alima and ‘aqala, and their cognate verbal forms and nouns. The somewhat ambiguous verb ‘arafa and the corresponding noun ma‘arifa are sometimes taken to have mystical connotations,10 but in the classical philosophical literature the most prominent use seems to be rather more ephemeral, simply denoting knowledge, usually in the sense of the preliminary starting point provided by the senses for more developed types of knowledge,11 but occasionally also in the sense of recognizing something one knew from prior acquaintance.12 The verb ‘alima and the cognate noun ‘ilm, translated here as ‘to know’ and ‘knowledge’, respectively, may also be used in an ambiguous and loose manner, but more commonly they have the technical meaning of scientific knowledge, as is proper for the standard Arabic translation of Aristotle’s epistēmē. A closely related psychological verb is ‘aqala (‘to understand’, sometimes also in the fifth form ta‘aqqala) and the corresponding noun ‘aql (‘intellect’). Since the human subject, around which most of the discussion on self-awareness revolves, is an intellectual entity, it is unsurprising to come across these terms in our texts. Worth mentioning, however, is the fact that they are rarely used of self-awareness, and thus

9 10 11 12

Cf., for instance, Avicenna’s discussion of pleasure in Ishārāt, namat. 8, 192. For other examples, see Goichon 1938, 161. This is particularly manifest in the use of the cognate noun ‘irfān for a mystical type of philosophy, particularly in Iran; see Mutahhari 2002, 89–141. So, for instance, in Avicenna, Shifā’: al-Burhān I.3, 12; and I.6, 26–27. For a brief discussion of this use of ma‘rifa, see Adamson 2005, 266–268. Cf., for instance, Avicenna, Ta‘līqāt 147, 161.

Appendix: Arabic terminology


when they do figure in the relevant contexts they merit special attention.13 But although both ‘alima and ‘aqala suggest a considerably developed type of knowledge, and therefore something above ‘mere awareness’, they are occasionally used in a loose manner that renders them virtually synonymous with sha‘ara or adraka.14 Finally, many other cognitive terms, such as ra’ā (‘to see’) or fahima (‘to grasp’ or ‘to conceive’) and its passive participle mafhūm (‘concept’), feature infrequently in the discussions on self-awareness, but in light of the present study it seems warranted to assess that the terminological variation does not signal any systematic classification of different types of self-cognition. The most consistent distinction along such lines is that between reflective selfawareness and the more primitive type of self-awareness it presupposes, but that distinction is usually made by means of the expressions shu‘ūr bi al-dhāt (‘self-awareness’) and shu‘ūr bi al-shu‘ūr (‘awareness of awareness’), and even then there is significant terminological vacillation. H ara, h.udūr, ·z ahara, ·z uhūr. Finally, the ishrāqī tradition instigated · ad ˙ ˙ is witness to the emergence of an entirely novel pair of by Suhrawardī concepts, that is, the verb h.adara (‘to be present’) and the cognate noun ˙ z ahara (‘to appear’) and its cognate noun h.udūr (‘presence’), and the verb · ·z uhūr (‘appearance’), in the introduction of which the phenomenon of selfawareness plays a major role. Since the investigation of these novel concepts and their relation to the phenomenon of self-awareness is one of the central tasks of Chapter 6, I refrain from characterizing the concepts here. 13 14

Such is the case, for instance, in our discussion of the epistemic category proper to Avicennian selfawareness in Chapter 4.3, 97–103. Cf., for instance, S·adrā, Asfār I.10.2.4, III.505, where a familiar Avicennian argument about selfawareness is rendered in terms of knowledge (‘ilm) of the self.


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‘Āmilī, Bahā’ al-Dīn, 161 Abū Bishr Mattā, 15 Alexander of Aphrodisias, 16, 20 argument against reflection models of self-awareness, 4 Avicenna, 54–55, 63, 64, 69, 72–75, 87, 88, 91, 93, 99 Mullā S·adrā, 170–176 Suhrawardī, 108–109, 113, 120, 128 argument against the soul’s substantiality, 116, 120 argument from personal identity Avicenna, 75–79, 94, 103 Suhrawardī, 110–111 argument from the unity of experience, 4 Avicenna, 64–71, 75, 78 Mullā S·adrā, 176–181, 198, 208, 216–217 Aristotle, 12–16, 21, 23–25, 30, 73, 89, 97, 162, 182, 192, 198, 231, 235–236 perception of perception, 12–14, 43 soul, 23 Augustine, 6, 31, 58 Averroes, 6, 8, 15–16, 20, 22, 25 Avicenna abstraction, 27, 29 awareness of awareness, 22, 63, 74, 82, 89–91, 95, 97, 102 dualism, 10, 23–24, 32, 34, 36–39, 42, 44, 51, 59, 61, 64, 82, 114, 115, 126 and self-awareness, 51, 54–56, 58, 62, 69, 71, 82, 88, 93, 95, 101–102 and individuation, 10, 25, 44–51, 47–48, 54–56, 58, 93, 99–100, 186 Ishārāt, 38, 42, 42–44, 54, 58–59, 62, 63, 72, 80, 81, 82, 89, 91, 97, 101, 106–108, 114, 117, 120, 126, 131, 135, 158, 167–168, 168–169, 171, 203, 206, 214, 236 Mubāh.athāt, 35, 59, 60–62, 61, 64, 69, 72, 75–76, 78–79, 81–82, 84–87, 86–87, 89, 95, 97–98, 100–101, 102, 103, 110, 173, 208, 211, 214


Najāt, 24–25, 27–29, 64–66, 65–66, 88, 186 pointer and reminder, 4, 33–36, 42, 53, 62–63, 79, 85–86, 91, 114, 165 Risāla al-adh.awīya fī al-ma‘ād, 79, 112 self, 35, 38,˙ 41, 46, 52–54, 62, 68–72, 78–80, 93, 95, 99, 103, 114 and presence, 88 self-awareness, 24, 41–42, 47, 51–55, 57–64, 71–75, 78–80, 82–87, 89, 93, 95, 97, 98–101, 102, 104, 106, 228 and individuation, 229 and intellectuality, 58–61, 100, 228 and presence, 88 as existence, 10, 51–56 as first-personality, 10, 69–71, 74–75, 80–88 concept of, 31, 38, 61–64, 68, 71, 75, 78, 80–82, 85–88, 91, 92, 97, 99–103, 113, 202, 208 in animals, 100 phenomenon of, 30, 36, 39–41, 62–63, 65–66, 69–71, 77, 80, 85, 87–88, 165 primitive, 55, 60–61, 63–64, 70–71, 73–74, 83–84, 87–91, 92, 93–97, 99–100, 102–103, 158, 188 Shifā’, 23, 51–52, 54, 56, 58, 97 al-‘ibāra, 92 al-Burhān, 144, 236 al-Ilāhīyāt, 32, 34, 43–44, 49–50, 57, 59, 86, 91, 96, 96–97, 114, 114, 123, 143, 157 al-Madkhal, 48–50, 55, 91–93, 100, 126, 186–187 al-Samā‘ al-t.abī‘ī, 47, 183 Fī al-nafs, 14, 23–29, 31, 31–36, 33, 35, 38, 39–40, 40–41, 43–47, 44–46, 49–51, 54, 56, 59, 60, 64–70, 76, 79, 83, 85–86, 88, 90, 96, 97, 99–100, 110, 110–112, 112, 116, 117, 125, 131, 146, 155, 165, 168, 179, 185, 188, 193, 198, 216, 234 soul, 23–25, 31–33, 35–37, 39, 42–43, 45–46, 48, 51, 59, 61, 64–66, 70–71, 77–79, 89, 92, 96, 98, 114

Index and body, 25, 32, 34, 36, 44–48, 50–51, 61, 66, 69, 114 and form, 32, 44 and self-awareness, 52–53 animal, 23, 32 human, 23–25, 29, 32, 33–34, 34, 36, 40, 45, 47, 62, 64, 186, 211, 212 incorporeality of, 44 unity of, 44 vegetative, 23, 32 Ta‘līqāt, 41, 51–54, 56–58, 62, 64, 71, 72, 88–89, 91, 95, 95–97, 101–102, 109, 116, 125, 136, 140, 157, 236 Baghdādī, Abū al-Barakāt, 10, 104, 114–117, 120, 122, 144, 168, 176, 179–180, 188, 193, 206 Bahmanyār Ibn Marzubān, 75–78, 98–99, 101, 110 bundle theory, 46, 49, 92, 99, 126 dhāt, 18, 22, 35–36, 38–41, 45–46, 49, 52–53, 56, 58, 68, 75, 78, 80, 82, 98, 100, 102–103, 106, 108–110, 112, 115, 119, 121, 127, 130, 134, 136–138, 140, 149, 155, 157, 167, 169, 170–171, 174, 176, 178, 182, 184, 186, 190, 196, 198–199, 201, 203–204, 206, 212, 213, 215–216, 221, 224–225, 228, 233, 236 emanation, 24, 25–26, 90, 152, 156, 158–159, 194–195, 212 epistemology, 9–10, 36, 56, 124–125, 129, 192, 226 cognitive unity, 17, 59–60, 111, 125, 134, 192–193 impression theory, 128, 130, 175, 193 Fārābī, Abū Nas.r, 8, 19, 162 first-personality, 20, 71, 73, 75, 77–80, 85–86, 101–102, 106–107, 109, 112, 121, 156, 175, 181, 202, 218–219, 226, 228–229 flying man, 4, 168, 186, 188, 213 Avicenna, 6, 9, 30, 34, 36–42, 47, 53, 54, 62–63, 63–64, 67, 68, 71–78, 80–82, 85–88, 101, 110, 117, 165–167, 190, 207, 235 Ibn Kammūna, 117, 166 Mullā S·adrā, 117, 164–167, 171, 197, 200, 206–207, 218 Suhrawardī, 87, 106–108, 111 Ghazālī, Abū H · āmid, 7, 104, 154, 205 God’s knowledge Avicenna, 56–60 Mullā S·adrā, 174, 196, 215 Suhrawardī, 125–127, 132–136, 139–141, 156, 158–159


H · imsī, Ibn Nā’ima, 235 Ibn ‘Arabī, 161, 210 Ibn Kammūna, 37, 107, 117, 166 illuminationism, 4, 10, 104–105, 110, 118, 124, 146, 148, 154, 161–162 internal senses, 25, 65, 81 Avicenna, 25–28, 83–84 common sense/fantasy, 26, 28, 61, 206 estimation, 26–29, 36, 47, 61, 83, 137–138, 205 imagery/formative faculty, 26–29, 137 imaginative faculty, 26–27, 36 memory/retentive faculty, 26–27, 36, 80, 82–84 Mullā S·adrā, 176, 198, 205 Suhrawardī, 129, 137–138 thought, 26, 129 Ish.āq Ibn H · unayn, 13–14, 15, 21, 73 Kirmānī, Abū al-Qāsim, 35, 62, 81–82, 84, 85, 87 Kitāb al-īdāh. fī al-khayr al-mah.d (Liber de causis), ˙ 17, 235 ˙ 16, Kulaynī, Abū Ja‘far ibn Muh.ammad ibn Ya’qūb, 163 metaphysics, 3–4, 8–10, 17, 77, 114, 118, 121, 123–124, 142–143, 147–151, 154, 159, 162, 163, 189, 210, 226, 228 Mīr Dāmād, 162 Mullā S·adrā, 3–5, 7–9, 11, 15–16, 56, 148 al-H · ikma al-‘arshīya, 163 al-H · ikma al-muta‘āliya fī al-asfār al-arba‘a, 117, 161, 163–165, 167–178, 182, 185, 187, 189–190, 193–194, 196–199, 201, 203–204, 206, 211–213, 215–217, 221–222, 223–225, 237 al-Mabda’ wa al-ma‘ād, 163 al-Shawāhid al-rubūbīya fī al-manāhij al-sulūkīya, 163 al-Ta‘līqāt ‘alā Sharh. H · ikma al-ishrāq, 148 cognitive unity, 16, 169, 174, 188, 193–196, 198, 201, 226 dualism, 178 individuation, 185 existence, 168, 175 gradation of, 181 modes of, 169, 180, 182, 184–185, 187, 191, 201, 203–204, 210, 215, 217 primacy of, 162–163, 226 God, 163 Kitāb al-mashā‘ir, 163 life, 161–162 Mafātīh. al-ghayb, 162



Mullā S·adrā (cont.) mental existence, 94, 101, 166–167, 169, 177–178, 180, 182, 184–185, 187, 188, 194, 195, 201–202, 205–206 and self-awareness, 5, 56 self, 160, 167, 169–170, 174, 178, 181–182, 190, 197, 201, 203–206, 215, 221, 224 and agency, 180 and cognitive unity, 11 and identity, 216–217 and mental existence, 181 and opacity, 219 and presence, 224 and substantial change, 212–213, 216–217, 219, 221, 225–227 and substantiality, 173, 176, 182, 188–190, 202, 227 concept of, 213, 219, 222, 229–231 gradation of, 181 opacity of, 211, 222–224, 226–227 self-awareness, 166–167, 169, 171–174, 181, 197, 204, 213, 226 and agency, 199–200 and cognitive unity, 188, 196, 198–199, 202, 205, 207–208 and existence, 182 and first-personality, 175, 187 and identity, 214, 216 and individuation, 187–188 and mental existence, 167, 182, 184–185, 187–189, 191, 202, 205, 208 and presence, 173, 184 and substantial change, 187, 209, 211, 213–215, 218, 221–222, 230 and substantiality, 182, 189–190 as existence, 182, 191 concept of, 166–167, 176, 181–182, 197, 205, 207–208 gradation of, 227 in animals, 166, 172 phenomenon of, 181 primitive, 174, 177, 189–190, 198, 214, 216, 218 reflective, 173 soul, 164, 168–171, 174, 177, 195–198, 200–201, 206, 217, 221, 223 and agency, 200 and body, 166, 178–179, 182, 184, 205, 213 and cognitive unity, 225 and form, 184 and substantial change, 212, 217–218 and substantiality, 168, 177, 179 and unity, 179 animal, 164–165, 171–172, 207 human, 170, 205

substantial change, 182–183, 187, 193, 208, 211, 213, 219, 227 and identity, 209–211, 217 works, 162–163 nafs, 22, 31, 35, 52, 66, 68, 71, 75, 80, 108, 114–116, 122, 127, 130, 136–137, 149, 155, 157, 170–172, 177–178, 199, 201–202, 225, 234 Neoplatonism, 17–18, 30, 56, 154, 192, 195, 210 Peripatetic, 8–10, 30, 101, 104–106, 108, 111, 114–115, 118, 120, 124–125, 132, 141–142, 144, 147, 150, 151, 157–158, 163, 177, 185, 209, 217 Plato, 231 Plotinus, 6, 18–19, 31, 97, 158 Porphyry, 59, 193 presence (h.udūr), 131–132, 185, 237 ˙ primacy of existence, 147 primacy of quiddity, 147, 162 Proclus, 16, 17 psychology, 2, 4, 9, 12–13, 23–25, 30, 36–37, 38, 42, 44, 56, 59, 64–66, 71, 79, 98–99, 106, 111, 115, 125, 129, 131, 133, 158, 172, 176, 179, 184 Rāzī, Fakhr al-Dīn, 4, 7, 10, 56, 88, 104, 116–118, 120, 131–132, 168, 169, 176, 179, 185–189, 194, 214, 220 Lubāb al-Ishārāt, 131 Mabāh.ith, 56, 116–117, 131, 168, 180, 185, 185–186, 189, 220 Sharh. al-Ishārāt, 21, 44, 81, 100, 117, 135, 214 self-intellection, 15–17, 19, 21, 57–58, 61, 70, 91, 135 Shīrāzī, Qutb al-Dīn, 148 Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn, 4–5, 7–10, 58, 104–105, 161, 163, 179, 194 appearance (z· uhūr), 8, 10, 122, 124, 137, 140, 142, 147–153, 157 definition critique of, 144–145, 153 dualism, and individuation, 126 existence, 118, 121–123, 134–135, 142–143, 147–148, 156–157 H · ikma al-ishrāq, 8, 105, 108–110, 112–113, 118, 121–122, 124, 136–137, 142, 144, 146–147, 149–151, 154–155, 157 individuation, 126, 148, 155–156 I-ness, 9, 113, 121, 122, 136, 155, 160, 175, 202 knowledge, 106–107, 123–125, 127–130, 133–134, 136, 138–142, 157, 196 life, 104


Index light (nūr), 8, 10, 108, 142, 146–151, 154–159 Mashāri’ wa al-mut.ārah.āt, 58, 105, 111, 124, 130, 134–136, 141–145, 196 pointer and reminder, 109 presence (h.udūr), 10, 88, 101, 107, 123–125, 127, 130–134,˙ 136, 138–142, 157, 196 quiddity, 121, 135, 144, 146, 153 self, 106, 107, 110–113, 119–121, 127–130, 133, 136–137, 140, 149, 152, 157, 159 and presence, 109, 119, 130, 133, 141–142 and substantiality, 119–123, 129, 149–150, 188, 191 self-awareness, 106, 109, 138, 149–150, 154, 159 and appearance, 149, 154, 157 and incorporeality, 123 and light, 149, 151, 154, 156 and presence, 122 and substantiality, 182, 190, 228 as a challenge to Avicenna’s theory of knowledge, 136, 138 as a foundational concept, 154 concept of, 109, 112, 120–123, 136

phenomenon of, 106, 119–120, 153 primitive, 121, 123 soul, 106, 110, 119, 128–130, 134, 136–140 and body, 127, 130, 137–138 and presence, 138–140 human, 141 rational, 112 substance, 111, 118–119, 120, 122, 135, 142 critique of, 142–144, 148, 152 Talwīh.āt, 58, 105–110, 112, 118–119, 121, 122, 124–125, 127–128, 130, 132, 134, 136–138, 142, 144–145, 175, 191, 206 vision of Aristotle, 125, 127–130, 132, 136–137 thatness (annīya), 16, 39–40, 41, 68, 76–77, 80, 106, 109–110, 115, 118, 233, 235 Themistius, 19, 20 T.ūsī, Nas.īr al-Dīn, 44, 168–169, 214 Sharh al-Ishārāt, 169, 214 Ust.āth, 15, 235

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